Sunday, September 23, 2007

"The Landlord," til Tuesday, takes us to 1969 Park Slope

Um, remember Park Slope in the late 1960s, the time of redlining, trash-strewn empty lots, and battered buildings? I don't, though I've heard tell, so the next best thing is to get to the Film Forum (through Tuesday only), to see Hal Ashby's 1970 movie "The Landlord," an entertaining and jolting portrait of a neighborhood and an era.

The New York Times, in feature headlined Before Gentrification Was Cool, It Was a Movie, describes it as "an experimental, satirical film, from a script by an unknown black screenwriter, about a wealthy young white man who decides to buy a Brooklyn tenement and ease out the black tenants so he can gut it and move in."

Indeed, when Elgar Enders' family learns he's bought a building "in the Park Slope area," the response is, "Are you aware that's a colored neighborhood?"

(Was it? I'd thought that the population was as much Latino as black, but maybe some readers can correct me. I can say that a couple of longtime black homeowners in the northwest Slope have their stairs and railings painted red, black, and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag. On the same block as more recent arrival Maggie Gyllenhaal, actually.)

Gaining territory

"The strongest drive we have as a human life force is to gain territory," we hear early on in the movie, but it's not easy for Elgar at all, as the photo (the landlord, played by Beau Bridges, and a tenant, played by Louis Gossett, Jr.) suggests--though modern-day viewers, looking back on the let-it-all-hang-out era, might marvel at how easy it was for him to find love across the color line. (Maybe the soundtrack helped.)

Elgar's grandiose plans to evict the tenants, several of whom are non-paying and/or violating their leases by operating businesses, come to naught. At 51 Prospect Place, as the New York Times identifies the house (though I'm not sure of that, based on a look at that block today), it's just west of Sixth Avenue. That area has changed markedly, even though the 1973 Historic District designation excluded territory this far west.

Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Park Slope, the blocks between Sixth and Fifth avenues were far less rehabbed (and costly) than they are now; the gentrification of the Fifth Avenue shopping street has increased property values and turned the blocks between Fifth and Fourth avenues into the new real estate 'frontier.'

Disappeared, and revived

The Times says “The Landlord” "would disappear after its 1970 release — rarely shown and just as rarely discussed," and it's not even available on DVD.

The Village Voice headlined J. Hoberman's review The Slums of Park Slope: Attention, moms, Brownstoner: The Landlord recalls bygone Brooklyn. It notes that Elgar "does establish a brief, bittersweet rapport with his hustling, scuffling, half-crazed tenants—even learning something about race and what would be called 'gentrification' before retreating back into his money."

As Hoberman points out, the film shifts in tone, from serious to madcap. The Film Forum's description calls it "both a time capsule of 70s cinema — direct-to-the-camera dialogue, jagged editing, jarring bursts of music on the soundtrack, echoey on-location sound... and those bellbottoms! — as well as an edgy (before the term was coined), rope-dancing-on-the-razor’s-edge dramedy on race in America."

And yes, as the Film Forum notes, the ‘n-word' is uttered, "but not said by whom, and to whom, you might think." Not at all. Like the movie itself.

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