“I make films like I make food: if you don’t like it, I’ll just be eating it all week for leftovers.”
–Melvin Van Peebles, after the premiere of his 2008 film “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha”
Perhaps it was because I was sitting in a university auditorium that I was suddenly rocketed back to my film school days while watching the latest film “of” Melvin Van Peebles. Back then, I would have been sniggering through my fingers as the raucous movie veered out of control around every single corner, and when it was all over and the lights went up, I would have over-analyzed the shit out of it and blatantly made fun of my colleague in class.
On its surface, “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha” resembles the worst of student film stereotypes, replete with sex, knives, confused editing techniques, and above all, a message that it so convoluted and overdone that it has gotten lost among the screen-pollution you witness while watching it. That being said, I’m trying to figure out just why I loved this film.
The story goes like this. Mr. Van Peebles plays the lead role, one can never quite grasp his name, as an old man coming to terms with his life. He sits down in a dark and smoky room and begins his tale of woe for the captive audience. The rest is the story of his life told through flashbacks. His career in the merchant marine, his business venture with an addle-brained cohort, his first and only love, his journey to find solace in the heart of Africa and his subsequent escape from civil war there. All star the 75 year-old Van Peebles at varying stages of life, and all seem to take place in the same era, the current day. For example, you might see the elder filmmaker at school talking to other kids, or running away from home with a tin of money he had saved since he was born. No effort is made to dress up the sets to feel as though they are in a particular period.
While it might help focus the audience if we could have a coherent picture of this man’s history, Mr. Van Peebles’s formal choices, or lack thereof, help drive his character home for us. In other words, to be distracted by the logic that we do not see in this film is foolish. We receive just a clear a picture of our leading man’s life with all the silliness of watching an old man act like a child. It is clear who he is and why he has lived his life the way he has. On top of all of that, as should be clear from the title, he is not a trustworthy narrator. It is conceivable that his tales of intrigue and sexual conquest are but a fabrication created to make it easier for him to sleep at night.
I don’t think I’ve yet made you aware of how silly this movie gets. Here are some bullet points:
- While in the merchant marine, Mr. Van Peebles’s ship captain blows up a rival pirate ship (whose captain is played by the director’s son, Mario Van Peebles) and our hero is showered in gore. Grabbing arms as they land on him, he scratches his back and his crotch with the expected sound effects
- On the same voyage, he spends his leave time seducing little old ladies, making love to them and using their checkbooks
- In an effort to escape the clutches of a dictator in Africa, he runs through the jungle and is encountered by a randy gorilla, whose clutches he narrowly escapes only by pulling on its privates.
When the book is closed on Melvin Van Peebles, he will unquestionably be remembered by his 1971 independent hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”. Though he had made higher profile films before that one and has made quite a few since, it is the film that is synonymous with his name and considered the progenitor of the blaxploitation film movement. The incendiary film broke down barriers and opened up opportunities for generations of black filmmakers. Since the 1970s, however, this scruffy suspendered visionary has pulled back from the mainstream. Left to his own devices, he has been making the films he wants to make, for him. One must respect his audacity. If this film ever makes it to DVD, I highly recommend you add it to your queue.