THE LANDLORD (1970)
CAST: BEAU BRIDGES, DIANA SANDS, PEARL BAILEY, MARKI BEY, LEE GRANT.
DIRECTION : HAL ASHBY.
What a day it is to write about this lesser known gem that opened the golden and socially conscious gateway of 70s filmmaking. THE LANDLORD is one among many works of lasting merit that I watched on the prestigious catalog of MGM channel not too long ago. Again, this may seem like a digression from the film but I’m sure you’ll find it to be a welcome one as the medium through which I watched it is equally important and pivotal for me.
The singular standing of the MGM channel for its qualitative, offbeat choices stands out then. By offbeat, I mean works not of a particular frontline but greatly accessible owing to a shared sense of universal humanity . Unfortunately its satellite broadcast shut down two years back here in India and other regions. Yes, I was disappointed that I would not be able to catch a glimpse of its iconic logo on the top of my television screen or catch the subtle intricacies of many obscure films on repeat that may have been neglected in their heyday because of limited public exhibition /screenings but have gone on to make memories of inestimable worth for me. That’s life and I remember all of them like I saw them yesterday.
Trust me when I say this: some of the greatest approximations of life and themes were found in its impressive library and I have gained so much knowledge and experience from each so as to not bemoan its loss now. Two of the dissertations for my postgraduate years centering on the intersection of films and literature, for which I received not just good grades but a lot of intellectual appreciation as well , besides a different kind of self evolution as a writer and observer, were all due to these films and in my blog posts, I will write about them as I had done so in my registers through past years .
2015 was perhaps the year where MGM helped me formidably commit to writing about these films and the impact of themes and power of execution they all carried have stayed with me . I’m happy to say that many of my peers and contacts too swore by the channel and its contents and when other movie cable networks were mostly embracing these mammoth superhero blockbusters and mainstream enterprises in re- run after re – runs, this stood for stirring, meaningful content. Personally, I learnt a lot by just watching these artistic marvels and in turn spread the word to other discerning souls who understood the sheer cinematic currency that could honorably help us evaluate and pass through puddles of the real world. It is a positive cycle, you see. MGM exemplified all this and more; as the passage of time goes, I know how valuable those few years were in shaping my sensibilities.
The greatest asset I had as a cinephile was that I watched all these films as they aired, randomly and with no prior knowledge, and each time I was captivated, did my research on them and they soon emerged as frontrunners in my legacy of impressionable years. That’s the power of discovery and sometimes going with the flow can expose us to endearing experiences galore. The ego of the mainstream goes away and a diverse taste emerges out of nowhere as a pleasant surprise. That is how it must be for all of us exploring filmmaking, its makers and actors and the process that lends dignified urgency to our own life scripts. Some of the memorable films I watched exclusively on MGM are :MY AMERICAN COUSIN, AT CLOSE RANGE, THE MAN IN THE MOON( Reese Witherspoon’s debut), MOLLY, IMPROMPTU, A PASSAGE TO INDIA ( before I read the classic novel), THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE CURE, FOXES, LITTLE MAN TATE, CRISS CROSS, TUNE IN TOMORROW, RADIO DAYS, SEPTEMBER, OF MICE AND MEN, ECHO PARK, NETWORK, LISA, THE MUDGE BOY, IGBY GOES DOWN, THE DUST FACTORY, RAGING BULL, THE OFFENCE, A HOME OF OUR OWN, STILL OF THE NIGHT, parts of THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, MAXIE, ANNIE HALL, INTERIORS, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, STANLEY AND IRIS, STELLA (with BETTE MIDLER) et al. Other prestigious titles / classics include horror touchstone CARRIE, Barbra Streisand starring and directed game changing musical YENTL, THE WHALES OF AUGUST with a congregation of greats like Lilian Gish, Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price and dual manifestos of racial identity in A DRY WHITE SEASON, set in apartheid era South Africa, and MISSISSIPPI BURNING set in the segregated American South. I am so excited I watched all of these underrated gems and you know what, ‘Underrated’ very often equals long lasting quality and all these films commit to the truth in one way or another. Of course, a few titles are better known than the rest but I profess no favoritism or discrimination. I will write about all of these soon, one after the other. I ask you to always look out for good cinema, literature and the spirit of discovery, almost like a keen sense of renaissance.
THE LANDLORD is a particular favourite of mine. Make no mistake, I only saw it once on the channel but it truly had a deep impact on me.
First things first : its examination of race relations is timely in a post Trump unraveling of sensibilities. I saw it in early 2015 in an age of Obama where it seemed like the ideal of equality had been embedded, riding on the continuum of greater fraternity over the last two decades. Growing up in a household where human decency was naturally inculcated in my parents and being raised on not an iota of isms as such, I never saw colour bias in practice and for me the fact that people looked different from each other in terms of skin color or shared cultural heritages of their own was rooted in universality of experience. Ultimately, customs, issues and this general mosaic of thoughts become similar throughout nationalities and ethnicities. However, realities of this world were always part of this incalculable equation. Who knew 2016 would show more cracks and backward demotions to racial consciousness in all its muddied water everywhere?
THE LANDLORD is self reflexive on those fronts, suitable for every era, very relevant to the immediate here and now. The idea of conversations and interpersonal bonhomie is traced with tact and an overriding sense of basic human endeavour permeates the screenplay for the better.
It’s set in the late 60s and 70s era when the clarion call of a revivified Civil Rights Movement and Black Panthers pantheon had brought the African American voice front and center and has the consummate stage star PEARL BAILEY as one of its leading performers.
As a recently watched documentary on MAYA ANGELOU informed me, Bailey had been performing gloriously in theater when the iconic play THE BLACKS with the likes of Angelou, Cicely Tyson and others took the world by storm . As I had seen her in THE LANDLORD, I could intertextualise her presence as a figure of change. The play itself had put African American individuals in a seething denunciation of white supremacy and was controversial and epoch making for its straightforwardly manner of interpretation of race relations.
Finally, it’s a showcase for the naturally lit and realistic frames of cinematographer GORDON WILLIS whose raw power has been a part of the Godfather trilogy, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Interiors, all of which I have seen.
The sense of musty interiors, shadowy outlines of places and faces is distinctly his own trademark and it is a commonality I harked back to. In the same breath, kudos to BEAU BRIDGES, the film’s lead and brother of screen legend JEFF BRIDGES. Aficionados know both siblings shared joint honors with MICHELLE PFEIFFER in the celebrated THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS and recently he has been seen in THE DESCENDANTS as George Clooney’s sibling and in the video of the reggae infused BETTER as MEGHAN TRAINOR’S alcoholic grandfather. Here, he is the antithesis of a surly, stereotypical landlord figure, more so on racial/ cultural lines and is charming to a t. He is a noteworthy actor in his own individual capacity and cinephiles need to watch more of his work. His performance and characterisation here is enlightening, touching upon the singular marrow of individuality above any and every worldly prejudice. No prism of supremacy alights his world.
In the end, praise be to director HAL ASHBY who has come to define the cinematic portals and his era with his deft touch.
His classic highlight remains COMING HOME, another socially conscious 70s drama set in the Vietnam War timeline and boasting of gifted performances by JANE FONDA, JON VOIGHT and BRUCE DERN, artists who continue to endure even today.
In the next post, I will share my original review of THE LANDLORD that I wrote in 2015 . For now, I think I have shared every single aspect I wanted to address. So for me this post is an amalgamation of my respect for MGM and its inimitable library , the introductory sprinklings about THE LANDLORD and an idea about its social matrix that makes it a self reflexive work. So do seek this one out.