Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"The Landlord" - Hal Ashby's 1970 Film Teaches and Inspires

Woody Allen in "Annie Hall", 1977
Turner Classic Movies has been featuring some amazing films during the annual "31 Days of Oscar" but to their credit they've also showed some unconventional and distinctly 'Un-Hollywood' movies as well.

Last night I watched "The Landlord" starring Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands and Pearl Bailey; with Louis Gosset and Robert Klein rounding out an excellent cast as well. This hilarious racial satire was also the amazing Hal Ashby's 1970 directorial debut and was produced by prolific director Norman Jewison. The story, based on the novel by Kristin Hunter, follows a naive and privileged young man named Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (brilliantly underplayed by Bridges) who leaves his family's cushy suburban enclave to buy a building in Park Slope, Brooklyn. This is most definitely NOT the gentrified Park Slope of today and Elgar's initial plan to evict the black tenants from his building falls apart when he begins to become attached to the various characters and their lifestyles. 

While Hal Ashby is perhaps best known for directing "Shampoo", "Harold and Maude" and "Coming Home", I am a huge fan of his 1979 film "Being There" with Peter Sellers and many of the elements that are characteristic of his visual style, pacing and editing can be seen in "The Landlord". The film is way ahead of its time in terms of the unflinching portrayal of bigotry, snapshots of urban African-American culture of the early '70's and on-screen inter-racial romance. The culture clashes between Elgar and his domineering mother (played by Lee Grant) over race are hysterical, poignant and revealing; especially when they come face to face with the black residents of Park Slope.

So let me cut to the chase as I figure some of you who have bothered to read this far are wondering why I have a photo of Woody Allen when I'm talking about Hal Ashby. The reason I decided to blog about this film is because of one particular scene that stood out to me as emblematic of Ashby's skill as a film editor (he won an Oscar for editing "In the Heat of the Night") and made me suspect Woody Allen may have, shall we say, been quite inspired by it during "Annie Hall".

By the 2nd act of "The Landlord", Elgar has begun to loose patience with his parent's quaint racist attitudes and he angrily confronts his mother's prejudice by confiding to her that he's been seeing a black woman. Ashby cuts in close on Lee Grant's horrified expression and for a brief moment, it cuts to a scene of a tribe of African women in traditional costume dancing and singing in native tongue. The whole sequence lasts maybe 15 seconds but to me it was absolutely hysterical; and a brilliant way to use film and humor to illustrate how prejudice can distort thinking and perception.

For me Woody Allen's 1977 film "Annie Hall" is one of the funniest movies ever and in the same way Ashby uses humor to explore black/white relations, Allen uses it to examine his own cultural identity as a Jew who's more of an atheist constantly struggling to understand his own identity and place in the world. Like "The Landlord" one of the main sources used to examine anti-Semitism is a wealthy WASP family.

My absolute favorite scene in Annie Hall is when Woody Allen's Alvie Singer drives up to Connecticut with Diane Keaton/Annie Hall to meet her family for the first time. During dinner it becomes clear that Alvie is painfully self-conscious and that the Hall family are politely shocked that their daughter is dating a Jewish man. During the meal, Hall's grandmother doesn't say anything; she just stares at Alvie Singer with a nasty expression. At one point, Alvie glances at Grannie and dips his spoon into his soup; for a micro-second, Woody Allen suddenly appears dressed as a Hasidic Jew complete with the beard and hat as he sips the soup then it cuts back to Grannie glaring at him.

For me part of what makes "Annie Hall" a brilliant film, is Allen's choice to consistently break the 4th Wall and not only narrate the story directly to the audience, but also at times literally step outside scenes his character is in to talk about what's happening. In fact he confides his observations to the audience and calls grandmother Hall a "classic Jew-hater" then uses a split-screen flashback to compare and contrast family meals at his own house in New York as a child as his stereotypical Jewish mother argues back and forth with the relatives at the table as she cuts the father's food for him.

So I'm not accusing Allen of ripping off Ashby or anything. My sense as I thought about the two scenes and their similarities was that Allen was clearly inspired by the scene with Lee Grant in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" and decided to employ the cut in his own script/film. To me that reflects the power of cinema, to both inspire and teach. And hopefully in the process, broaden our perspective by teaching us that it's okay for all of us to look at ourselves through a different lens and find the ability to laugh; even when the subject is as painful and uncomfortable as the racial and religious prejudice that's interwoven into the thread of American society.

Perhaps we have to embrace that before we can overcome it, what better tool for such a noble purpose than art?



No comments: