406) The Landlord (1970) Dir: Hal Ashby Date Released: May 1970 Date Seen: November 20, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Now having seen The Landlord, Hal Ashby's elusive directorial debut (not on R1 DVD, folks), I have to begrudgingly admit that I understand why many consider it to be a minor film in Ashby's oeuvre. Adapted from a novel by Kristin Hunter, The Landlord features little insight into the racial conundrum white liberal Americans present themselves with when they try to engage or unwittingly exploit a disenfrachised and entrenched African-American community. Its titular protagonist, played by Beau Bridges, at first coasts through life thinking that everybody, white and black, are ants in the long run, callously refusing to engage with his own racial prejudices. By the end however, having become romantically involved with a mulatto and a married black woman, he learns that racial integration is heady, sticky stuff. Zeitgeist, I say, zeitgeist!
Bridges' life-changing lesson is only bolstered by the impenetrable collective character of the other black folk he meets during his short time in the hood. Ashby's film refuses both Bridges' character and us the comfort of knowing the tenement residents' respective motives for selectively aiding and stymieing his vain attempts to convert their building into a tacky dance hall with a huge chandelier hanging from its skylight. Transparency is not an option, making much of the film's knowingly sardonic caricatures especially mystifying. It's all a big inside joke and the viewer, like Bridges, is on the outs.
But there is something sporadically seductive about Ashby's purposive style of direction. Bridges' tentative romance with the mulatto (she's black in the winter and white in the summer) is one of the only times when the audience can feel confident thinking they know what's going on. Filmed mostly from a distance, Ashby creates a distinctive portraits of two isolated lovers trying to figure out who they are in each other's eyes. In that central sub-plot, Ashby earns our sympathies, even if his tendency to prove his neophyte aesthetic wiles sometimes steers him wrong (the film's climactic though maddeningly ethereal love scene is just flat-out unbelievable). The rest of the time however, he's just not trying very hard to accomplish anything except look good while smirking.