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Sunday, March 3, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Video Watch

Melvin Van Peebles' `Identity Crisis' Goes Directly To Videocassette

While his son's latest movie (``New Jack City'') opens in hundreds of theaters Friday, Melvin Van Peebles' first film in nearly two decades has gone direct to videocassette this weekend.

The elder Van Peebles' new movie, ``Identity Crisis,'' is a broad, campy spoof, written by his son, Mario, who also stars. Melvin turns up as a kind of narrator who explains the convoluted plot about an effeminate fashion designer whose personality tries to take over the body of a rapper played by Mario.

The complications are reminiscent of the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin comedy, ``All of Me,'' in which Tomlin and Martin fought for control of Martin's body. It's not the breakthrough film one might have expected from Van Peebles, but it does call attention to a legendary filmmaker who dropped out of the business 18 years ago.

Melvin Van Peebles' ``Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song'' was the most radical black film of the early 1970s, and his groundbreaking work has been celebrated during the past year at tributes at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Spike Lee paid tribute to him in the 1989 documentary, ``The Making of `Do the Right Thing,' '' using clips from ``Sweetback'' to demonstrate Van Peebles' impact on Lee's films.

``All the young filmmakers generously acknowledge the influence,'' said Van Peebles from his New York office this week. ``The Sundance tribute came about because someone just realized I'd been around and had some effect. I'm extremely gratified at the reception.''

In addition to ``Sweetback,'' the festivals have screened ``Watermelon Man,'' ``The Story of a Three-Day Pass'' and Van Peebles' last film, ``Don't Play Us Cheap,'' which he completed in 1973. Only ``Watermelon Man,'' starring Godfrey Cambridge as a white insurance salesman who wakes up to find that he's turned black overnight, is available on videocassette.

``Columbia Pictures owns that one,'' he said, ``but I thought I'd hold out for a moment for the correct handling of the others. It's really open season on independent filmmakers. I've been ripped off by people making pirated video copies from bad prints, and I've spent some time suing small companies. There's enough of a body of work to make an interesting global deal, which I'm pursuing.''

While his son at this point describes himself as a ``director for hire,'' Melvin has always remained independent, raising the money to finance his own features. But he tired of putting up all the money himself, even after ``Sweetback'' became a box-office hit, and he retired from films and explored other media.

``After `Don't Play Us Cheap,' I got very busy with theater and Wall Street,'' said Van Peebles, who traded on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and wrote a book about options trading. He also wrote novels, made records and won an Emmy for his television work.

``There was a diversity of possibilities,'' he said. ``I'm not as pressed to do cinema as I might be. But Mario wrote this very funny script called `Identity Crisis,' which he wanted me to do, and I got back into it.''

Melvin and Mario formed a company called Block N Chip to produce ``Identity Crisis,'' and they're involved in other projects as well: a recently published Simon and Schuster paperback about the making of the film (``No Identity Crisis'') and a movie about the Black Panthers (``Blowin' in the Wind'') that will take considerable preparation.

According to Melvin, ``Identity Crisis'' is bypassing theaters and going direct to video because he couldn't arrange a good theatrical deal at the Cannes Film Festival. His son, on the other hand, never assumed it would be a theatrical release.

``I knew it was going to be a video,'' said Mario, who says that being raised by Melvin ``was like growing up with James Brown. He's the godfather of black cinema in America.''

Since the film was completed two years ago, father and son have added a 4 1/2-minute rap video that precedes ``Identity Crisis'' on the cassette. It's a mini-version of the picture, almost a preview trailer, with Melvin and Mario dancing together and telling the story.

Video notes: Several black films from the ``Sweet Sweetback'' era will be making their video debuts in late April, including ``Cooley High,'' ``Truck Turner,'' ``Monkey Hustle'' and ``J.D.'s Revenge'' . . . The cassette release of David Lynch's ``Wild at Heart,'' originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been postponed until April 4 . . . Seattle-based MoonRay Productions and Stan Golub Productions have received prizes from the New York and Chicago film festivals for their 30-minute videocassette, ``Spirit of the Eagle,'' which was filmed in Discovery Park, Woodland Park Zoo, at Herron Island, the Canadian San Juans and parts of Alaska. Kathleen Phelan wrote and directed it. For information, call Wehman Video at 726-0220 . . . PBS Home Video will release ``Kids Ask About War'' as a free rental tape on Thursday. The program is designed to help answer children's questions about the war in the Persian Gulf. For information, call 1-800-624-4727 . . . Peter Bogdanovich's ``The Last Picture Show'' will turn up for the first time on video April 3. The sequel, ``Texasville,'' follows April 25.

Video Watch by John Hartl appears Sundays in Arts & Entertainment. You can get more video information by calling the Seattle Times' 24-hour free service Infoline. Call 464-2000 from any touch-tone telephone and when instructed, enter the category number 0911 to reach the Video Hotline. You may replay all information by pressing ``R'' (7); back up to previous information by pressing ``B'' (2); and jump over over current information by pressing ``J'' (5).

NEW VIDEOS IN STORES THIS WEEK

Tuesday - ``The Doors Live in Europe 1968,'' Giancarlo Giannini in ``Good Night, Michelangelo.''

Wednesday - Jeff Daniels in ``Arachnophobia,'' Mark Harmon in ``Goliath Awaits,'' Joey Travolta in ``Wilding,'' Frank Stallone in ``Terror in Beverly Hills,'' ``Skier's Dream,'' ``The Misadventures of Mr. Wilt,'' ``A Touch of Murder,'' ``With Friends Like These,'' ``You're Driving Me Crazy,'' ``At Gunpoint.''

Thursday - Jason Patric in ``After Dark, My Sweet,'' Christopher Walken in ``King of New York,'' George C. Scott in ``The Exorcist, Part III,'' Will Rogers in ``Ambassador Bill,'' ``Mr. Skitch,'' ``A Connecticut Yankee'' and ``Doubting Thomas.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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