TCM Film Fest: 1970's "The Landlord" is the Modern Cinema We Deserve.
A major part of the magic of the movies is their immortality. Beyond legends of Martha Graham, or Arthur Miller's exploits opening night of "Death of a Salesman." Beyond a few good sketches of Sarah Bernhardt in the midst of an alleged triumph on some European stage, movies last. But that doesn't mean that they're remembered.
Earlier this month Hollywood threw itself a four day party, not in honor of its immediate future or the next hot thing, but its past, and not always the shiny parts. The TCM Classic Film Festival is in its 8th year and is certainly a testament to the longevity of things that happen on film. And you'd likely be amazed at how much of its audience was made up of people under 35.
It's probably the closest pre-digital cinema will ever come to having a comic-con all its own. Actually, no, that's probably not true, it'll get crazier. But already a sizeable percentage of the more expensive pass holders, are millennial, more than a few of whom showed up in Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn or generically Golden Age era attire. I didn't expect that.
And at first glance, what an overwhelming sign that these films, these classics, won't be forgotten. That TCM has succeeded in its mission to ensure the survival of its wards into the next generation. But then, after a little investigation, it turned out that for the most part, all those hip young people were just going to see the hip or overwhelmingly famous pictures. Nitrate prints of 1944's "Laura" or a poolside screening of "Planet of the Apes," complete with a Q&A with Lou Wagner as Dr. Zaius.
As great as the evolution of modern hipsterism has been for the resurgence of analog media, from records to 35mm screenings, to the fact that cassette tape sales on Bandcamp were up 200% from last year (take that for what you will,) you can only fall in love with the romance of art from bygone eras if you've heard of them first.
Which brings us to the point. Hal Ashby's 1970 debut "The Landlord," is filled with more true millennial spirit than maybe any recent movie I've seen in the last five years, and I doubt more than a few of us have heard of it. I'd certainly never seen it before TCM grabbed up a 35mm print and displayed it loud and proud in the massive heart of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre.
It's the story of a rich white Long Island guy (Beau Bridges) on the edge of turning 30 who, instead of taking up the family business decides to buy a brownstone in, wait for it, Bed-Sty Brooklyn, in the hopes of renovating, gently removing the tenants, and turning a hefty profit, more than 30 years before the rest of of us even considered touching that part of town.
For those of you not familiar with the intricacies of New York real estate, Bedford Stuyvesant's a black neighborhood, a very black neighborhood, historically. One that it took me until about a year ago to be able to walk through with a white person without hearing "Get Out Cracker" hurled from some dark corner of the street. Now it's where my cool blue haired indie-rocker friends live. So.
Hal Ashby is a legend of 1970's New Hollywood who it is said, broke the only rule of the time and thus has suffered faded fame. He died, in 1988. Rising from Norman Jewison's edit bays the Oscar winning scene splicer of "In the Heat of the Night" is one of the most interesting, talked about, and simultaneously overlooked directors of the decade that brought us Spielberg, and Lucas, and that Dionysian vineyard lord Francis-Ford Coppola.
The film opens with fast, very 70's, kinda surreal cutting between Bridge's character Elgar drinking lemonade on a lawn chair giving a monologue to some off-screen (or non existant) listener, and the fast, groovy, dingy world of 70's black Brooklyn. Soon Elgar appears on those hot streets in a convertible filled with flowers to survey his new purchase, but is quickly (and comically) chased away by the locals.
Over the course of the film Elgar decides not to evict his rent dodging tenants and instead tries to integrate into their lives. Fixing sinks, attending parties, landlord stuff. By 60 minutes in he's got himself a mixed race girlfriend and far too much sexual tension with a tenant who's activist husband is often in jail for fighting the good fight. 90 minutes in he's got a mixed race kid all his own because of that tension.
From his out of touch father who hurls "democrat" like a favorite dinner insult, to a favorite sister who's charming liberalism appears mostly when she's high, to his beautifully out of touch mother who would rather he had a nice safe progressive hobby like "writing folk songs in your bedroom," Elgar's not exactly seen the world. (The folk music revival was no longer cutting edge hip by 1969 so clearly she's behind the times.)
Let's set aside for a moment how ahead of its time it was, and how it somehow is rarely talked about anymore. From what I can tell the last time anyone was writing about it was ten years ago in support of a week long run at New York's Film Forum. Let's talk about how ahead of our time it is.
First off, yeah, gentrification's at the center of the film as well as the center of most "enlightened" dinner conversation anywhere in Brooklyn. But this isn't the 2D "leave those brown people alone" sensibility we've gotten used to over in-house brewed lagers and analyses of Marvel's Daredevil.
Elgar's entirely out of his depth, but he's not exploiting his tenents, his not selling out to a hotel chain, he genuinely thinks that with a little love he could help make this a beautiful, multi-cultural neighorhood. Sure that may be a bit idiotic but it's probably a more earnest look at the actualities of gentrification.
It's an issue we'd like so badly to make black and white that simply can't be. Neighborhoods do need help, and an influx of NYU grad students can (on occasion) help a neighborhood evolve.
Of course, it's the displacement of the native population that is so dangerous, but that's something that Bridges' character doesn't exactly seem intent on. He plans to end any leases he can, but primarily 'cause no one's reliable with the rent. This more centrist view of the issue is something I find dearly lacking both in our portrayals, and our discussion of it.
As well meaning as he may be, Elgar's ineptitude can't be escaped. And the simple confidence it takes to just decide to take some of daddy's money and flip a Bed-Sty brownstone may be the kindest and most accurate portrayal of what we've named rich straight white male privilege. And to think that Ashly didn't even have all those wonderful labels when shaping the man.
Then there's the romance. The New York Times recently ran a (short) piece about the lack of interracial romance in film, brought to the forefront likely by the success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” And it’s a big question that isn’t often asked.
As pluralist as as our modern media studies feel they have become, it's a critique leveled infrequently of a mass media market that feels generally content to show widely equal people of all colors interacting across most strata of society, and then returning home to pretty damn attractive partners of the same shade.
Ashby isn’t about that life. There are two romantic entanglements in the film. The most dramatic is between Elgar and a married black tenant (Diana Sands) who indulge in a rather stylized one night stand. It should end there, until a few scenes later the Sands breaks into a conversation between Elgar and his mother (Lee Grant) to reveal she’s pregnant.
There are at least four brilliant and unique elements to Ashby’s staging here, though the most enjoyable is without a doubt the sudden break from reality he gives us when we pop in side Grant’s mind to see her vision of what this fruitful miscegenation means to her. We cut to the lawn of her Long Island estate to see her wearing a flowing white dress complete with bustle and parasol, surrounded by a half dozen midnight black children all dressed in stark white garden party attire. It’s one shot, one angle, and Grant’s performance says it all.
In the fantasy she is not disgusted, or powerful, in the fantasy she’s happy, they’re her dark chocolate grand babies. It’s the cut back to reality, and the shock on her face in the real world, that not only could that happen, but that she could enjoy it, that creates the truly powerful illustration of ingrained racism, that flows through the film.
And that wouldn’t be possible without Grant, whose performance simply feels as if it couldn’t have been summoned by any other actor. It won her an Oscar nom and eternal proof that method actors can be just as uproarious as they are heartbreaking.
The most important romance however is between Elgar and a wildly charming Marki Bey whom he meets in a hopping night club and mistakes for a white girl. She catches his mistake instantly though simply by the fact that he approaches her at all, and admits to being the child of a mixed marriage.
Edgar’s cool with it though and we cut to a 5am walk home along the river where Bey is given the chance to deliver an even, self-aware, and pretty spot on monologue about moving though the worlds of her multi-racial heritage. Without an ounce of victimhood.
Their romance has ups and downs (especially when the whole baby with another women plot comes into play) but in the end this coupling is the romantic heart of the film. Beyond interracial or cross cultural romance Ashby throws his 1970 audience right into the root of a would-be post racial world.
Where the future is so racially comprehensive you couldn’t pick out its bloodlines or its culture, it is entirely American. And where only the purely white or purely anything people are held back by clinging to a past version of an identity in flux.
Whether its Elgar’s racist father who can’t see that he’s tearing his family (and the legacy he purports to protect) apart. Or Sands’ husband's (a heart breaking Lou Gosset Jr.) inability to work within the bounds of peaceful or diplomatic protest when fighting for the rights of whichever ever victimized group he feels a part of that month.
African-American, Native-American, his is an identity ever changing and only ever rooted in a perceived victimhood. But rather than accepting multiple parts of these identities, or finding how best to advocate for them in his modern world he takes an all or nothing, black and white approach based on wrongs even his parents can’t remember. It lands him in jail and on the way to a psyche ward. Something that our modern liberal movement would do well to take a little notice of.
And if this was all the film had to persuade me that Ashby was ahead not only of his contemporaries tearing up “New Hollywood” but of all the well meaning millennial writers and thinkers and youtubbers crafting our modern sense of pop cultural morality, that’d be fine. But then there’s the cinema of it all.
From the first moment, where Edgar narrates to some unseen other character and the fast cut into the heart of New York, Ashby tells us that this isn’t necessarily a literal movie, a linear movie. But that it will be a true one, true to the experience of its characters. Some moments more expressionistic than others, from Grant’s show stopping fantasies to the not-so-subtle blood red lighting of Bridges’ and Sands’ sex scene, Ashby’s thrown out much of what Hollywood would traditionally have had him do. And sure, that’s what all of the 1970’s New Hollywood was about, but this came out in ’70. They made it in ’69, he’s conceiving it in ’68, this is at the beginning, this is foundational. You don’t get Taxi Driver or Jaws without this, and Annie Hall’s another seven years away.
Drawing from Godard and Rohmer and the irreverent, emotional scene construction pioneered by the boys of the French New Wave, “The Landlord” brought a lot of the magic of the european hits to Hollywood. Perhaps no American filmmaker of the decade employed these now foundational elements more effectively, with the exception of Woody Allen. But like I said, Annie Hall’s another SEVEN years away. Seven years until non-linear chapters and comedically dramatizing an inner thought become mainstream with the Academy’s gold stamp of approval on Woody Allen’s oddball comedy as the best picture of 1977, beating out, well, Star Wars.
But Ashby’s on that swag at the start of decade. Probably too early to be really recognized for it. Grant’s is the only Oscar nomination the film was able to secure, which is absurd because if this film came out today Ashby would certainly be up for Best Director. Sure that year Altman made "M.A.S.H.", Fellini made "Satyricon", Arthur Hiller made "Love Story", and Frank Schaffner took home the gold for "Patton". But certainly Ashby could have gone tow to tow with Ken Russel’s "Women in Love?" And yet, the decade past, New Hollywood became Spielberg and Lucas and Disney at this point. Ashby died early and the Landlord faded.
A major part of the magic of the movie’s is their immortality. But that doesn’t mean they’re alwas at the top of their game, it just means there's always a chance at a come back. As long as there’s a print, somewhere, locked away from the sun and the wet and the cold, Turner Classic Movies might give you another shot.
And I hope that’s what they’ve done for “The Landlord.” I have not seen a more “millennial” movie, a more actually relevant movie in a long time. Because this isn’t just about “millennial” things or contemporary issues. It’s not about the gentrification or the races or the one percent. It’s about Elgar’s changing view of himself. He starts out thinking that fixing up this house is no big deal. Then grows to love its people and understand their struggle, thinking he can help them, fix their little corner of Nostrand Ave, of Brooklyn, of the world.
But by the end he sees, with the help of his mixed race girlfriend, that he’s got nothing real to give them, that he can’t understand their world. Not because he’s white, or straight, or rich, or male, but because he has no experience outside of his own world. And that residing behind the walls of any one culture, black or white, French or Jewish or Menonite, a singular cultural standpoint is the bedrock of blindness.
He gives the building to Sands’ character, the now mother of his child, because who better to look after a place than the people who live there. Careens off through a hot Brooklyn afternoon with his newborn son in a picnic basket towards Marki Bey’s window, in the desperate hope that not only will she take him back, but that she will help to raise his son. Who else could? Only she knows what a child of two worlds and no world would face (I assume is his logic). She does, it's emotional, the world takes a few more steps towards its post-racial future.
And it's that self-awareness, that change of perception that I think most of America, probably most of the West at least, is struggling with right now. We're waking up, and are perhaps ashamed that we slept so long. But now, we're ready to meet ourselves, to decide what matters and what doesn't, what is true, or what's worth the fight. We're considering taking a few more steps into the wider world. Or a few steps back.
I walked out of the Egyptian Theatre feeling, among everything else, that there was no way that film had been written by white people, it was just to, detailed. A real “you had to be there” to do it like that kind of thing. Turns out, screenplay by Bill Gunn, an African-American guy from Philly, based on the novel by Kristin Hunter, an African-American woman. So there you go.
It’s also worth noting that one of the best arguments for sharing a meal to understand someone else, ever made on film takes place between Grant and a straight up badass Pearl Bailey, and happens to be hilarious along the way. And that, one of the most enjoyable, detailed, and original uses and performances of the N word I’ve ever seen comes out of Lee Grant in the first 30 minutes.
It’s got everything we claim to want from our films today and yet, the festival opener “In the Heat of the Night,” another Lee Grant picture edited by Ashby and directed by the producer of “The Landlord,” Norman Jewish from 1967, has been given seemingly endless lip service and declarations of “frightening relevance and timeliness” since the shooting of Micheal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While this film, from much the same team is all but forgotten.
This year's festival featured a three film tribute to Grant, and between showings of “The Landlord” and her debut film “Detective’s Story” (which also garnered the 24 year old theatre actress an Oscar nomination and the Best Actress award at Cannes) somewhere in the bowels of the Chinese Megaplex she turned to me and asked if I’d seen "The Landlord" before, I told her that I hadn’t until that day.
Her eyes lit up as she asked “Isn’t it amazing? He [Ashby] was incredible! How did he make that? He should have made it today. And it’s almost as if no one knows.” And then she turned back and continued on through the theatre, eager ensure another film, another piece of her friends and their incredible 20th century, would be remembered.
A major part of the magic of the movies is their immortality, and if TCM has its way “The Landlord” will finally have found the next stage of its long life.
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