You could call him a Renaissance man

Baltimore Sun

Actor Melvin Van Peebles is walking quickly through the Renaissance sculpture gallery of the Walters Art Museum, being pursued by a tall black woman with a menacingly purposeful stride, who is being pursued by actor Melvin Van Peebles, who is being pursued by a tall black woman with a menacingly purposeful stride, who is ...

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If not, don't worry. There promises to be plenty more suitably odd and calculatedly impressionistic scenes in "Baltimore: Baadasssss Cinema Part 2." The futuristic short film from British director Isaac Julien, filmed here last month and slated for a February premiere, hopes to find the common ground among three local museums -- the Walters, the Contemporary Museum and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum -- and blaxploitation cinema, the tough-talking, hard-living symbol of black empowerment that Van Peebles helped usher in with his 1971 movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."

It's a strange mix, for sure, a concept that sounds at once highfalutin and populist. And that's just fine with Julien, an award-winning filmmaker whose movies defy categorization as determinedly as they embrace experimentation.

"The narrative is basically Melvin Van Peebles pursuing a cyborg character who in turn is pursuing him," Julien, 42, explains between takes, trying to reveal as little as possible. "It's sort of a lyrical narrative, and it's cyclical.... It's sort of a piece which is stylistically experimental."

As his crew of about 12 begins setting up for the next shot, in which actress-model Vanessa Myrie will mimic the same steps Van Peebles just took, Julien takes a few moments to talk about the disparate elements he hopes to merge.

"It's blaxploitation films meet the museum; it's popular culture meets high culture," says Julien, whose earlier films (including "The Long Road to Mazatlan," a sort-of homoerotic western) suggest a fondness for such odd cinematic juxtapositions. "It's set in Baltimore, but it's slightly in the future."

The film, which should clock in at about 10 minutes, is being designed as "an homage to Melvin Van Peebles' movies," Julien says. (In a later conversation, he emphasizes that people who come looking for something like "Superfly Visits an Art Museum" are going to be disappointed.) It's also going to feature some impressive special effects, including one shot in which Myrie's character leaps the height of the Peabody Library's cavernous central space (an activity normally discouraged during business hours).

The finished movie, he promises, will wed the old to the new, the traditional to the cutting edge. That's one of the reasons he's filming it in such bastions of classical culture and long-standing tradition as the Walters and the Peabody.

"I was very interested in the idea of the nostalgia of the future," Julien says, adding later that he is "really trying to invoke the idea of temporality, of different times. I want to put the future, the past and the present in the same frame."

Van Peebles, who had just completed an extended stay in Paris before arriving in Baltimore for a week's filming, appreciates the tribute Julien is paying him and the genre he helped create. And he believes in his director's vision. "He's got a great mind," Van Peebles, 70, says. "I trust Julien, so I don't have to think anything about it. I do what he asks me to do."

The Chicago-born actor clearly relishes his role as a film pioneer and, even if he's way too cool to admit it, enjoys being seen as something of an icon. "Sweet Sweetback's" was the equivalent of a wake-up call for film studios when it opened, a reminder that there was an untapped audience of black men and women anxious to see themselves and their experiences on screen. The time was right for a black hero, and the streetwise, hardscrabble character Van Peebles put at the center of his movie -- a pimp on the run for shooting two white cops who had killed a black militant -- filled the bill. Still, he takes all the talk of "Sweet Sweetback's" being a groundbreaker in stride.

"I was just telling what I saw, what I'd seen, and my take on it," he says. "Turns out, there was a whole American audience just dying to see what I had done. You know," Van Peebles adds, a sly smile spreading across his lean, angular face, "in America, I'm revered as the godfather of modern black film. But the truth is, I'm the godfather of independent films. They had never been taken seriously before, then suddenly, there was this. I'm the godfather of 'The Blair Witch Project' too."

Julien's film, which he plans to premiere in Liverpool, England, was commissioned by the Walters and the Contemporary as part of the institutions' ongoing "Facing Museums" collaboration. The first joint effort, artist Dennis Adams' rock-climbing wall, with hand and foot grips cast from objects in the Walters' collection, was installed on the outside wall of the museum's Centre Street building in November 2001. "Facing Museums" "invites contemporary artists to create work that responds to the collection of the Walters and the contemporary art that the Contemporary Museum embraces," says Jackie Copeland, curator of the exhibit for the Walters. Julien's proposal for Baltimore, she says, represented "an interesting clash of cultures, an intersection of ideas and sensibilities.

"Isaac is one of only a few contemporary artists who are engaged in film," Copeland adds. While the Contemporary has plans to open an exhibit in the fall that documents the filmmaking process, plans for a local showing of the finished film are incomplete; museum officials hope to project it on an exterior wall of the building. Barring that, they'll show it inside.

But such a conventional setting most likely wouldn't do the film justice, as witnessed by a second day's shooting at the Walters. For this scene, about a dozen figures from the Great Blacks in Wax Museum -- including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, Billie Holiday and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- have been placed inside a room filled with Renaissance and Baroque paintings. The shoot involves Van Peebles in a dark pinstripe suit and black fedora, unlit cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, standing alongside a wax figure of himself.

"All I know is, it's going to be good," Van Peebles had said earlier of Julien's film-in-the-making. "What form will it take? I have the right to be surprised, I have the right to enjoy."


Chris Kaltenbach is movie critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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