Meeting Melvin Van Peebles

He’s streaming around this little reception like it was an informal cocktail party he threw himself. There’s only about 20 people in the room and he introduces himself to every one, even the semi-shy, dressed up girlfriends of legit guests who are just dying to meet him.

After Bo the organizer does his thing, welcoming the media and saying some very nice things about Mr. Van Peebles, the man himself takes center stage and graciously offers up a joke for our time.

“There’s a man who tells a Freudian slip when he’s having dinner with his mother. . .He meant to ask her to pass the butter but instead he says, “You really messed up my life’.” Melvin says the last bit sheepishly, and hangs his head. It’s not that funny written down, but it’s hilarious when he tells it and the room laughs uproariously. Some a little too hard, some letting him know that the brothers are on his wavelength even if they have got their media passes now.

When Bo explains that this group had seats reserved for them, and would have to enter the screening from a special backway, Melvin is up to the shit, playing it it out for every moment of fun that occurs to him. As with Yiddish humor, much of his comes with a bittersweet edge. You laugh now because you used to cry about it, or because you want to have a time when you can look back and say you used to cry about it.

I walk over to the pile of sodas to pour myself a ginger ale, and Melvin is standing there by himself. I am a trifle surpried at the comfortable alone-ness that he emanates throughout the evening, quite satisfied without the entourage that usually comes with his territory and circumstances. Trying to think of something to say, his feet caught my eye:

“I really dig your shoes” I said staring down at the spat-like, wing tips covering his red socks, “where did you get them?”

A story commenced:

“I saw these shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, and said to myself Hmm! (an expression of approval comes over his face) Then I saw that the price tag was $340 and I thought shit that’s a lot of money for a pair of shoes but”. . . he trails off, giving the impression that he is a man of some impulse, and if he liked ’em he was gonna have ’em.

“But then I looked again and they were $34” another pause “Then I looked again and they were 2 pair for $34, so I bought a load of ’em.”

“Do you like shoes? Where are they on the scale of things that you love?” I ask, half expecting a commentary on the ecstasies of consumerism.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. What are the four things at the top of the list of the things that you love?” I am still too uncertain to call him by his first name, though I want to, and he wouldn’t mind.

We’re about the same height (5′ 7″) so he doen’t have to crane his neck to look me straight in the eye. His immediate response is “Pussy, pussy, pussy.”

“That’s only 3, what’s number 4?”

“More pussy.”

“Shoes aren’t on the list?”

“Shoes! shit they’re way the hell down there, maybe 34”

“Well, at least you’re honest. Where’s honesty?”

He stares at me incredulously “Honesty doesn’t even make the list. Would you like some ice?”

I say no thanks but he puts some in my glass anyway and tops it off with ginger ale.

“You know if I’d really thought about it, about honesty, I wouldn’t have done the things I did. I don’t like to think too much.”

As Peter and I are exiting the reception half an hour later, Melvin taps me on the shoulder and says, “Number 5: cinematography”

I smile and ask him if he wants to reconsider honesty, but he can’t believe I would ask him again, like I didn’t take him seriously the first time. (Fun and seriousness are not incompatable for this man)

“I told you, honesty does’t even come near it, not on the list not anywhere, it doesn’t matter”

A passerby chimed in, “It’s like, what’s love got to do with it.”

Melvin agrees, “Exactly.”

So everyone at the reception files out and walks into the auditorium to watch his cinematic magnum opus: Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song. Hundereds of us first hear a few words from Melvin. He gets up to the microphone and claims his place: “Somebody said that property is 9/10 of the law, and surviving is 10/10, so I’m up here now, and you can forget it.”

This man was still appreciative that all of these people wanted to see his work, stuff he did 20 years ago, that was light years ahead of its time. He let us know, with real honesty, that he thought that this was a terrific film and in an aside said he’d be lying if it didn’t mean anything to him because it was 12 years of his life.

He told the story of making STORY OF A 3 DAY PASS –peppered with sonourous anecdotes, and the sweetly measured timing of a true storyteller. In order to get the crew he needed to make a film with so many black actors in it, and not get into serious shit with the union people, he made use of a union exemption for pornographic filmmakers. He made sure, he candidly notifies us, that he shot plenty of sex scenes the first few weeks, and when the powers-that-be came into view the rushes, they were assured that this film was about “just a bunch of crazy niggers”, and then left Melvin well enough alone.

Afterwards Peter and I went downstairs to meet Lisa, and who should be in the back-office, alone again, but Melvin.

I extended my hand and said, “I don’t know what you can do with numbers one through four, but I sure like what you did with number 5.” Melvin smiles. Turns out he doesn’t have much of an entourage waiting, so we all went to a hotel for a drink.

First he talked to the two French women who had waited to speak with him, and were rather excited to address him in his own language.

At the hotel he did a bit of his new one man show for us, and the beginning of his one act version of a serious Hamlet. He lounged back, looking at the glass elevators and hotel-lit lobby and smiled: “this is nice. . .nice place, drinks, scintillating conversation.” Not in an excited way, but appreciating a moment for what it was, though he’s had many more exciting, with people more famous and powerful.

He talked about being worn down by producers, as an artist, and advisied Peter; “They tell you they really love your work, and they get you into it and then its a process of erosion. . .then they come in at the 15th round when you’re exhausted and say BOOM that’s it. Don’t let em get you in the 15th round, man.”

He spoke well of his son Mario’s directing debut at the Sundance Festival this past year.

Daughter Megan now sells advertising at a high-tech magazine. Max?

Was there anyone in his family who was a great storyteller, a grandparent? Are you kidding, all I ever heard was shut-up Melvin.”

With the first real money he made from film, he went and got himself a tatoo. A dotted blue line around his neck with the words “LYNCH HERE” “So I wouldn’t forget,” he said. “All of these conservative black guys said ‘oh, when you make it you’re going to get all mealymouthed and uptight, but I haven’t. ‘ No indeed.

He later confessed that he had another tatoo, this one “on my butt, it says ——– . Which means ‘If you can, motherfucker’ in a language of middle Africa.”

Re: his kids and the filming –Megan would get excited ’cause she could go out for a BLT and then we did the stuff with the hat and the bow tie. (sex with Big Sadie, motorcycle woman)

What else do I remember about my night with Melvin? A few questions, and a few responses…

“Was that you in the film?”

“Oh, someone else who doesn’t recognize me with my clothes on”

“Were the sex scenes real?”

“I got the clap from doing this film, and that’s the truth… I got a venereal disease and I applied for Workman’s Comp and got it.”

He knew what a mohel is. He used the word minyan casually in conversation.

Mostly I remember tha myy night with Melvin was a night to remember.

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