Kansas City

(Robert Altman, USA, 1996)


Screwy Squirrels

Kansas City is among Robert Altman's best films. After the career low point of Prêt-à-Porter (aka Ready to Wear, 1994), Altman refocused his energies and tightened his directorial control. Kansas City is a highly articulated film, in the sense that all its pieces and elements are exactly where they should be, interacting in a satisfying and coherent way. This is not the case for every Altman film; they often – for good and for ill – tend toward a loose, carnival-like, party structure. But in the '90s and beyond, Kansas City's control places it in a line with Short Cuts (1993), Cookie's Fortune (1999) and the magisterial Gosford Park (2001).

Critics have sometimes compared Altman's looser films to jazz pieces – with their free-floating plot structures, improvisatory spirit, and playful suspension of intense moments of dramatic confrontation or comic punchlines. The films are jazz-like, too, in the way they seem to work wild, sly riffs on certain well-known, pre-established models – genre models like the private eye film, the Western or the musical. In the context of his previous work, Kansas City presents a real paradox: it is the first of his films where jazz music per se is powerfully present, in fact ubiquitous; and yet it feels in every respect like his most classical movie, the one most precisely worked out in the script before shooting and carefully executed to that plan.

There are three aspects of the project that must have encouraged this greater artistic control on Altman's part. Firstly, the story (as also in Gosford Park) unfolds in the '30s, and the period setting seems to call forth in Altman a certain restraint and sedateness, even a respectfulness, not to mention a little cool nostalgia (as in Thieves Like Us, 1974]). Secondly, Altman wrote it with his occasional collaborator Frank Barhydt, and the films they have done together (such as Short Cuts) tend to be among his most intricately structured. Thirdly, although there is an entire milieu portrayed for us in Kansas City, the piece is predominantly a two-hander. When Altman treats the intimate, microcosmic rapport between two people, rather than the molecular interactions between a vast and unruly group of characters, his entire tone and approach changes.

His whole shooting style changes, for starters. No longer, in Kansas City, do we get the signature Altman images: meandering master shots and compulsive zooms that frequently cut together in a jarring, inexact way. Here, by contrast, the frames are still and well-composed; the seemingly off-hand gestures of a hand or a foot, the glimpses of this or that prop caught by the camera as it pans away, are always deliberate – telling moments, chilling gestures. (Pleasingly breaking the pattern in Altman's career, Gosford Park brings this same intimist precision to a large set of characters – with the intricate hierarchies of social class and a carefully mystified whodunit plot demanding, and receiving, rigorous structure.)

There are two women at the centre of Kansas City. Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a brittle floozy who quickly becomes desperate when her fancy man, Johnnie (Dermot Mulroney), bungles a stupidly-conceived robbery and is held captive by the local Mr. Big mobster (Harry Belafonte). So Blondie goes straight out and commits another ill-conceived crime: she kidnaps Carolyn (Miranda Richardson), the wife of a prominent local politician on his way up the government ladder. Much of the film alternates, in that suspended, high-wire way we know so well from Altman's other work, between two pieces of plot, or two situations: Blondie and Carolyn moving around town together, as they strike up a very odd and mysterious relationship of sorts; and foolish Johnnie sweating it out as Belafonte paces and talks, ruminates and exudes menace, in what seems like one long, superbly performed monologue.

We can guess that, like in every Altman movie which proceeds in fits and starts or in separate pieces, everybody and everything is going to somehow come together by the end and explode in an infernal combustion – or cancel out in a chain reaction of mutual interferences. Some of Altman's endings, even in Short Cuts and certainly in Nashville (1975), can seem forced, grandiose, contrived in an unconvincing way. But the ending here is astonishing, steely and precise.

Kansas City is a gangster film of sorts, but it bears very little resemblance to any pre-existing model in the gangster genre. It presents a clean, crystalline abstraction of the politics dramatised in gangster films: the politics of power and persuasion, threat and privilege. Belafonte's mob boss has the most abstract and stylised character name of this genre: "Seldom Seen", 'seldom seen but often heard' as it's glossed for us – because the basis of his power lies in his invisibility, plus the far-reaching consequences of his words and commands. Everything in the film hinges on social power, its central axis dividing those scary people who can wield power from all those pathetic dreamers who try to grab it but never succeed in doing so for more than a hopeless moment.

This Kansas is a violent city with mean streets. In one sequence, Seldom Seen and his gang take a miscreant out into an alley and beat him to death; while all of this goes on in the background or to the side, Seldom, positioned nearby, tells a racist joke about kikes and niggers. It's a very disturbing scene, and one might imagine from it that Altman has been taking tips from Quentin Tarantino. But it's probably the other way around: there's a certain kind of agonising slow burn, a horrible poise between comedy and horror, a form of sadistic preying on the spectator that Altman perfected years ago in The Long Goodbye (1973). And there's another curious bit of mid '90s synergy going on between Altman and Tarantino, and their two very different generations of modern American cinema: Kansas City makes one recall Pulp Fiction (1994) in the very exact way it plays with time, flashbacks, and the manoeuvring of different stands of a plot into an odd but compelling overall form.

However, the central innovation of Altman's films is not, in the final analysis, the overlapping, multi-tracked dialogue, the wandering zoom lens, or his loose, improvisatory, open-ended staging of crowded scenes. Nor even the vast narrative frescoes he sets up in Nashville or Short Cuts, with people in separate zones of the narrative circling around each other, intersecting in unusual and surprising ways. None of that seems to me what he does best, or most interestingly. I believe Altman's essential contribution to modern American cinema lies in his very particular way with characters and characterisation.

There's a certain type or shade of real human behaviour that Altman captures like no other filmmaker around. To my knowledge, the only critic who's tried to describe this strange form of behaviour in Altman is Raymond Durgnat. He once suggested that this director's characters are driven neither by strictly conscious thoughts, nor by unconscious forces (as in the classic Freudian model). Durgnat labels Altman "an explorer of the preconscious, of everything in it which is unknown and strewn with ambushes. Somehow his films upfront the mental reservations, the hypocrisies, the choices and the freedoms which his characters never knew they had, which his films never knew they had, which we never knew we had". (1)

Durgnat's remarks altered the way I look at Altman's films. Now, as I gaze at his characters, I believe I can see this stirring of the preconscious realm imprinted on their faces and in their bodies. It's as if they have a swarm of bees in their heads, all kinds of impulses, prejudices, received ideas, memories and perceptions – a swarm that makes a lot of noise, but not necessarily much coherent sense. And it's out of this unknowable, unmasterable noise that a character's personality arises. When individual personalities are defined and presented in this way, the interactions between them become almost infinitely open and unpredictable.

In a way, it's a very idiosyncratic, modern, dark kind of screwball comedy that Altman gives us here – qualitatively different to the lighter but no less idiosyncratic screwball in Beyond Therapy (1987). It's the character psychology itself which is screwy. In Kansas City flickers of allegiance or suspicion, trust or mistrust, knowledge or ignorance, seem to jump from Blondie to Carolyn, as the balance of power between them shifts almost second by second. When Altman does a two-hander, he presents characters who are at moments almost indistinct, who keep bleeding into one other, influencing each other in an alchemical symbiosis – like in Vincent and Theo (1990), about van Gogh and his brother.

A lazy way of describing the kind of behaviour we witness in Altman's films would be to call it alienated. In the case of Carolyn, it's literally doped-out. But Carolyn's fix on dope and Blondie's obsession with imitating Jean Harlow movies are not exceptional behavioural states, individually specific addictions or delusions. In fact, everybody in an Altman film acts in an oddly disconnected way, as if they're never exactly sure who they are. But that doesn't mean – no matter how frazzled or catatonic they might at moments become – that they will stay blank or passive. For they are also instinctual and can pounce like animals, acting with a sudden, certain ferocity – particularly when violence presents itself as an immediate solution to an impossible problem, a way of breaking through a haze or clearing a trap.

Altman's characters are astonishingly amoral creatures. They do have moral and humanist instincts, exhibiting gestures of compassion, empathy, generosity. But they are just as likely to lose track of these instincts a minute later. They move in an oblivion of forgetfulness. They know not what they do, what really drives them. And for viewers, the problem of deciphering any of this behaviour is even more acute. (The finest example of this is the excruciatingly close-up sex scene between Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi in The Player [1992].) When the characters in Kansas City take action, it's always ambiguous whether that action arises from a moment of pure, clear feeling, or a confused cloud of weak half-feelings or numb non-feelings. Altman gives us an incredible sense of what sociologist Erving Goffman in the '50s called the presentation of self in everyday life, the perpetual performance of one's supposedly private, inner self in a scary public realm – and that performance is always uncertain, fumbling, desperate. (Another very fine Altman-inspired film that explores these notions of character and performance in a particularly unsettling and hypnotic way is Ulu Grosbard's Georgia [1995]).

Almost every review of Kansas City, positive or negative, tends to end with the flourish: "Well, one thing's for sure, the jazz music is great". No doubt; but just what does all this great music do for the film, in the middle of its tangle of jostling plots and shifty behaviours? To be sure, the music invades every aspect of the film-text. It happens live in its own special space, the space of the Hey Hey Club; then it jumps over the edit into other spaces, other scenes, complete with crowd noise. It's hard not to think of another sadly underrated quasi-gangster movie, Francis Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984). In both films, the issue of race relations, the deadly power struggle between black and white, expresses itself directly and indirectly in the way that the black characters play music, the way they sing and dance.

Sometimes this music has an obvious symbolic function: music as war or confrontation, as in Kansas City's sublime scene of a saxophone duel. But the way this music is played and enjoyed by the crowd also expresses something more fugitive. This is music that, in the present tense moment of its performance, provides a haven, a utopia, a way of surviving that crazy, terrifying world of power built all around it.

Fragile survival and resistance – Kansas City is one of the great films about daily resistance (on an almost microscopic level) to social power structures. It is certainly not a work by a white man in which all the black characters are saints or angels; some of them are, indeed, power-mongering monsters. But there are indelible Afro-American characters here, minor, fleeting characters who express and enact their daily resistance to the order of things in the tiniest of ways – resistance through an indifferent look, a laconic smirk, just walking away from a scene or passing through a space ... or even falling asleep. Like that young black kid who you shouldn't miss seeing during the final credits, who seems to have missed his rendezvous with the plot proper; here he is, all alone and nodding off inside a beautiful dream, as the last remnants of the band play – what else? – Duke Ellington's "Solitude".

MORE Altman: Aria, The Company, That Cold Day in the Park

© Adrian Martin November 1996/April 2002


1. Raymond Durgnat, "Foreword: The Man With No Genre", in Norman Kagan, American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films, Pierian Press, 1982, p. xi. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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