THE LANDLORD (1970): DIVERSITY KNOCKS ON THE FRONT DOOR.

These are my original views about THE LANDLORD that I wrote on the 25th of March, 2015. Only a few new lines, merely two or three of them, have been added owing to observations picked up over the last two and a half years since this was written. So here we go.

*****

Modern enlightenment dictates that racism is a construct of the mind and product of a blighted conscience, particularly shouldered by misplaced societal bravado on any one party’s share. Individually, we count our blessings that the over- arching smoke of colour bias has been fanned out of our general view ; at the same time it’s known that we are staring at a deeper gulf consuming vestiges of the past. (I mean talking of this issue and having a one sided view would be nothing short of naiveté of the principal kind and that would serve no purpose. I know that the knots and tangles of race related myopia have broken many myths of surface level equality and diversity and as a present day commentator, I recognize that. Being in denial will be our folly).

Think of the stakes that would have been stacked up against first timer HAL ASHBY in envisioning The Landlord in late 60’s when the world still saw itself in stringently applied sepia tones ; and with the majoritarian ‘white’ compartment claiming fierce fidelity to anti Civil Rights din. Pacifists or even activism were negative honorifics to them and enfranchisement for ‘ those lesser mortals’ a possibility to laugh off. Try to think about how timeless all these points are in the age of BLACK LIVES MATTER AND ME TOO. That said, the movie’s exigency is time- honoured as I have said earlier. Director Ashby scores because he surveys the racial surge of the epoch with caustic, self referential humour. The baggage of bigoted history and an iconoclastic theme for inclusion in the future is seamless yet awkward. Prescience is the word here.

The screenplay’s overlooked but virtuous voice of a new generation takes centrestage in protagonist Elgar (BEAU BRIDGES), a 29 year old man-child who, on a whim, takes charge of a beaten down Brooklyn tenement as its landlord. Sooner rather than later, he realizes his pet project hardly entails a bed of roses, either for him or his tenants, all of them African American strugglers living on the edge of elusive glory, quite literally.

A culture comedy, erratic and pointedly so, traces Elgar’s bemusement until human contact at a basic level eclipses centuries of prejudice. This inter-racial bonhomie will be deeply ingrained in the minds of viewers who, themselves, have been at the receiving end of stilted communication owing to end number of reasons, which transitioned gradually to a bloom of convention-defying bonds, a perennial favourite issue to decorate our screens as well. Basically when we don’t condescend in terms of bonding, we realize differences exist in our mind, deposited by dint of ingrained waves of thought others taught us to obey. Elgar’s pretty much an affable non-entity ready to bend rules, whether it’s against the iron curtains of his affluent family’s WASPish sentiments and stance, unforgivably going all the way back, or mechanics of the capitalist melting pot that is New York (or America or the world in general).

Ashby posits his light hearted, bumbling, sincere ways to tell us that no grave matter is so ineffable as to not warrant a conduit for change or redressal. As his flat’s musty interiors inhibit his ambitions, he taps his inner goodness to make friends with the tough and independent, middle aged Marge ( iconic PEARL BAILEY), a very good cook too and confidante , and a washed up wife and mother Francine (DIANA SANDS). Diana is a revelation espousing fearlessness and inimitable chutzpah who goes weak in the knees for Elgar. As she remarks, “you are too damn cute to be a landlord”. The way she intones these lines is priceless indeed. Elgar’s barely concealed reciprocation to her further moves out of this storied threshold of history between these bifurcated races and out of the bounds of a normal cause and effect scenario, only to turn things upside down.

Thrust into this triangle is the feisty Lanie (MARKI BEY) bearing imprints of both shades of life in terms of her mixed parentage. An enduring bond between Elgar and Lanie forms an impermanent crux of his burgeoning ways. Of course, the scene stealer is Lee Grant as his mother Joyce. Her Academy Award nominated supporting turn invites guffaws and peels off layers of hypocrisy operating in each one of us. As she espouses her pompous dilettantism as her commandment and drops an in your face reference appertaining to GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? , the script comes of age, redeeming our rose tinted ideologies about race with a stark, enjoyable, if occasionally sluggishly paced mood piece. The scene where JOYCE meets MARGE is realistically pegged and is hilarious and I have to say LEE GRANT looks very much like India’s very own living legend WAHEEDA REHMAN.

Like all mothers, Joyce is an admixture of smother mother and sounding board to her son Elgar in THE LANDLORD.

There’s a striking snippet here where a host of African- Americans declaim the term ‘black’ in varying tones and it ultimately ends up in an identifiable chorus. Building bridges was the need of the hour then and it remains to be today.

THE LANDLORD befits Beau Bridges’ gleeful presence, supported by a laconic cast. It’s of the creative view that we need not be downcast about tackling harsh, damp realities. A smile can immensely help us. In Elgar, we find the exemplification of a MODERN MAN/ MAN OF THE FUTURE who makes his way through this unpredictable thicket. God knows we need him now as well. THE LANDLORD never skimps on the way people live and mechanics of a deeply flawed society. The claustrophobia, the indoor spaces, the way the dimly lit rooms are captured cinematographically and the exchanges are all drawn from the real world. It’s particular and universal.

*****

On a parting note, pictures from the iconic play THE BLACKS which I had mentioned earlier in the previous post.

It’s of particular interest in an era where skin color still provokes extreme antipathy in a divisive future. This, I felt, should be the end note to The Landlord so that we think about how far we have really marched forward in times to come.

*****

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