The seminal multihyphenate auteur of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" has just reinvented himself -- cleverly, as it happens -- as a video artiste.
Melvin Van Peebles strikes back. The seminal multihyphenate auteur of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” who has chalked up more careers in his 75-year life than most folks could fit into several reincarnations, has just reinvented himself — cleverly, as it happens — as a video artiste. Not that his digital techniques are even slightly groundbreaking, technically, but they mesh perfectly with the homemade illustrative nature of “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha.” Spinning a wry, tall-tale version of his autobiography, the septuagenarian audaciously plays himself at every age and every stage of his improbably picaresque adventures. Pic promises to pique fest and arthouse interest.
Low in his seat at the family dinner table, a wrinkled, bearded Van Peebles playing himself as a 10-year-old dreams of faraway lands while his beautiful, far-younger mother croons a long grace (the film, vaguely based on Van Peebles’ 1982 Broadway tuner, “Waltz of the Stork,” retains some of its spoken words and music).
Young Melvin’s titular itchy feet soon send him off to see the world, armed only with his “contingency stash,” a buried talismanic box dug up at key moments. Melvin’s travels are abruptly cut short when the truck driver who picked him up is rubbed out by trio of gangsters, and Melvin finds himself clinging to an inner tube and swimming to Gotham.
Climbing out of the slimy river to come ashore in Harlem (Van Peebles undergoes several such sodden rebirths throughout the course of the film), the stooped Van Peebles now plays himself as a youngster working odd jobs, waiting to be old enough to join the Merchant Marine. A woman’s love keeps him in Harlem for a little while, but eventually his wanderlust grows too strong.
A succession of upbeat exploits follows, featuring Van Peebles as a seaman/gigolo, an entertainer to a despotic African potentate, a prisoner of war and a slave in a mineral mine. Jim and Huck Finn rolled into one, Melvin returns to Harlem.
Unlike fellow-fabulist Raul Ruiz, Van Peebles makes no attempt to flesh out his fantastic world. Instead he works entirely within the frame to assemble an expressionistic collage that vaguely approximates an adventure. He then plunks himself down in the antiheroic middle, a sadder, wiser and infinitely older version of an itchy-footed mutha having his cake and regretting it.
Hitting every option on the video-tweaked palette, and often impressionistically underlighting scenes or simply shooting them out of focus, sometimes with whimsical exaggeration and other times with minimalist abstraction, Van Peebles putters around with the various forms of visual tricks that digital technology makes easy to do — wipes, solarization, endless long dissolves or flat-out superimpositions, as well as shoot in both black-and-white and color.
In the end, “Mutha” comes across as both completely unbelievable and surprisingly effective.