Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Landlord (1970)

Dir. Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby's film school involved working as an editor for Norman Jewison, which garnered him an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night and performing some game-changing work on The Thomas Crown Affair. Taking the advice of Jewison, Ashby stepped up to the role of director for the racial satire The Landlord and made a debut film that is alternately hilarious, moving and still manages to showcase some avant garde editing and some of the more experimental work of master cinematographer Gordon Willis.

Adapted for the screen by a central figure in 1970s black cinema, Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess), the film stars Beau Bridges, looking all of about 16 years old, as the son of a wealthy, WASPy family who has decided to rebel a bit by purchasing a Park Slope, New York tenement building. After a disarming faux documentary introduction and jump-cut juxtaposing of Park Slope with Bridges' country club upbringing, the film settles down a bit and gets into a more standard story-telling mode. There are highly stylized flourishes throughout but at its heart is a straightforward story of growing-up and finding love and independence. It's like the new-wave, east-coast version of The Graduate.

There's a lot of fun to be had watching Bridges' Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders have his idealistic illusions towards his new job as a Park Slope landlord dashed as he meets his tenants one by one. His awkward introductions to the women of the apartment make for comedic gold. But what makes the scenes, and the entire movie, rise above even some of the best fish-out-of-water scenarios is how genuine the characters are drawn. It's easy to say that the film is free of stereotypes -- it's the contradictions and conflicted nature of the characters that make them shine. I defy you not to fall in love with Francine, the tenant played by Diana Sands (whose own life story is quite tragic), upon first sight. Her and the other characters, like Elgar and his mother (played by Lee Grant in a well deserved Oscar nominated performance), grow, evolve and reveal nuance as the film progresses.

It's this vibrant life that Ashby gives each character that raises the film far beyond an intellectual racial satire and into a film with a heart that's just as big as its brain. Like his contemporary Robert Altman, Ashby is able to turn on a dime from expressionistic montages to intense, intimate moments. It can be as exhausting as it is awe-inspiring but it works wonders in The Landlord. Ashby threads the needle throughout the film and somehow manages to tie together heartbreak, biting satire and huge laughs. For a first film, balancing all this is rather amazing.

After the tenants and his family are through their initial threats to kill him or disown him, Elgar settles into his apartment and stumbles into a relationship with a half African-half Irish dancer at a local nightclub. Their romance, like the film itself, starts out somewhat improbable before turning quite honest and touching. Marki Bey gives a strong performance as Lanie, the quintessential young, intelligent, independent, urban woman of the late 60s/early 70s. At first your not sure what Lanie sees in naive Elgar; but he is growing up, considerably so as their relationship blossoms, and as Lanie starts to fall for him, so do we.

But as naturally as boy meets girl, boy must of course lose girl before boy can really get girl. You see, one drunken night in Francine's apartment is all it took for Elgar to give himself over to her in a way that I think any hetero-minded male would jump at the chance to do. It's one of the best scenes in the film, spectacularly shot in long takes and lit by Willis in a dreamy red hue. And it's made even better by the lack of the regret-filled morning-after that usually follows these scenes. Instead, the morning after is just a continuation of Francine's tenderness and it's a refreshingly sweet moment. The regret comes a bit later, as Elgar and Lanie are settling in and Francine comes a-knocking with news that she's pregnant. This leads up to a hilarious visual joke as Elgar's mother's stands frozen and we cut away to her mind's eye as she pictures herself standing in the lawn singing to eight black children.

Even with an unexpected love-child being thrown into the picture, the film resists falling into any melodramatic traps or heading down any familiar, comfortable paths. The tone of the ending is a little typical of the rebellious movies of the time, such as the aforementioned The Graduate, but it still can't be considered predictable. The Landlord is constantly turning left when you think it's going to turn right and surprising you with its depth when you think it's going to be all style -- right up to the final scene. It's thoroughly unclassifiable and yet nowhere near the film that the cover for the VHS release was trying to sell.

There's enough bold experimentation (that works), hilariously memorable lines ("He just called us niggers" and just about everything else that comes out of the mouth of Lee Grant) and uniquely enjoyable characters to make the film a certified classic. There hardly a wasted moment or line of dialog in the film and even though it is distinctly of its time (this is indeed your daddy's Park Slope) its message and themes are still meaningful today and resonate more than most of the films that attempt to speak about race these days.

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