An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #7: The Landlord (1970)

A confused, angry, wacky, heartbreaking film for confusing, angry, wacky, heartbroken times, Hal Ashby's directorial debut is one of the most complex, original and intellectually searching movies about race in America—not to mention unquestionably the funniest. If it's finally too diffuse and messy to constitute a coherent sociological statement, well, who wants that from art anyway? Screenwriter Bill Gunn even gets in a jab at the comparative shallowness of Hollywood's previous forays into racial drama: the protagonist's racist mother, cautioning him against getting too involved with black people, says, "Remember when I took you to see Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? Well, you know, they're not all like that." The picture inhabits the same Bermuda triangle of race, class and real estate in '70s Brooklyn as Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, 'cept this is a primary document, and an utterly fascinating one.

Beau Bridges plays a rich kid who rebels against his blueblood family by buying an apartment building in the black ghetto, then located in now-gentrified Park Slope. Well, it doesn't necessarily start as rebellion, and it doesn't end that way, either. At first he just has asshole ideas about evicting all the black tenants and using the building for...whatever. It's not clear that he even has a plan; he's just a self-absorbed, pampered dumbass. But as he involves himself more and more in the lives of the black folks—including two separate romantic liasions—he finds a liberal outrage he'd never had, even as most of the people in the black community continue to resent or despise him. But he's too busy with personal entanglements to bother with political ones, and he gets a lot of growing up done via his exposure to that black community. In his adrift coming-of-age, the movie often resembles an interracial take on The Graduate.

The first half of the movie is a daring, freewheeling screwball comedy—complete with Godardian asides, jazzy nonlinear editing, jokey insert-cuts and scenes of dinner-table family humiliation—while the second enters considerably more somber, compassionate territory. I have to wonder if Salon's Andrew O'Hehir fell asleep halfway through the film when he called it "something like a Marx Brothers movie charged up on LSD and left-wing politics." It's tough to think of any movie that treats the commingling of white and black, not just sexual but plain old interpersonal, with this kind of casual, immediate honesty. It turns into something quite moving, its beauty aided greatly by that genius cinematographer Gordon Willis, who finds lovely visual symmetry in the earthtones of the Brooklyn neighborhood locations and the people inhabiting 'em.

Something else unique about this thing: it presents a wide array of interesting, multi-faceted black characters in a movie that isn't expressly for black audiences or made by a black director, or considered a "black" film. Sad to say that's still an extreme rarity in movies today.

Despite its status as a perfect example of what made early dispatches from the New Hollywood so special, The Landlord has never been released on DVD. I recorded it off TCM and enjoyed a not-bad print, though of course I'd jump at the chance to see it projected on film someday. I understand, however, that MGM is about to make it available via that newfangled DVD-on-demand service, in which studios will burn you custom DVD-Rs of films they figure aren't gonna be profitable enough released the standard way. Order here! It's worth it.

And if you want to read a legitimately wonderful review of The Landlord please check out Steven Boone's piece, written for The House Next Door at the time of of a 2007 revival at Film Forum. Here's the money quote: "Thirty-seven years on, The Landlord is still shocking, but not because it's salacious or cynical. The film is shocking because of how tenderly and patiently Ashby attends to certain transgressive moments while asserting that in a sane, just world, they wouldn't be taboo at all." I also love Boone's observation that in one scene, the red light Willis bathes a white and black character in effectively renders them the same color. Good stuff in the comments section, too, as Matt Zoller Seitz jumps in several times. Seitz calls it "Ashby's most adventurous movie, photographically and in terms of editing, performance and variety of tone." From what I've seen of Ashby that is absolutely true. Seitz also claims, as a lead-in to discussing Ashby's radical stylistic choices in The Landlord, that "it might be one of the most influential American films that almost nobody but filmmakers and film buffs has seen." You know what? That's my favorite kind.

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