Ryan Gilby notes in his Guardian article on Robert Altman that the maverick director’s greatest innovation is the tiny microphones that he placed on actors while filming to create a wall of overlapping vocal sound for his movies. The technique is now commonplace, especially in this Bluetooth/wireless age. Big whoop. In the same way Rules of the Game (1939) and Citizen Kane‘s (1941) deep focus do little to wow people now.
But the interest is less about the what than the why. The half heard, sometimes improvised dialogue, in combination with the slow zooms that Altman utilised, help create these film worlds in a way that only the director seemed to see. His sound design illustrated a new way to construct conflict, to organise chaos. In so many Altman movies, the viewer is not only observing drama in a way that feels voyeuristic, they are gaining a sense of the tumultuous nature that inhabits the world.
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Strangely, Kansas City doesn’t use very much of that overlapping dialogue that punctuates many of Altman’s most notable movies. However, it still harbours that sense of bedlam and chance. Set in 1934, at the height of The Great Depression, Altman heads back to his place of birth to craft a drifting tale in which Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the wife of a small time thief, kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), wife of a local politician. The reasons behind this are due to her husband (Dermot Mulroney) being held captive by Gangster “Seldom Seen” (Harry Belafonte). Blondie believes that her kidnapping will elevate the situation with her husband. A bond seemingly forms between the two women, while a plan is hatched to rescue Mrs Stilton, while not risking any harm to Mr Stilton’s re-election prospects.
Like the jazz which infiltrates nearly every scene of the film, Kansas City is more about the moments in between the notes than the notes themselves. Altman seems less interested in the plot of the movie than in hanging out with these people and letting the chips fall where they may. At one point the film takes a break from the “action” to watch two saxophone soloists clash with each other and do what they can to gain a upper hand. They duke it out like two freestylers at a rap battle. (The trumpeter in The Hey Hey Club jazz group is Olu Dara, the father of hip-hop star Nas; something this writer found amusing while comparing duelling Saxophonists to battle rappers.)
The women interact similarly. Blondie’s plan is chaotic by nature. Perhaps too chaotic to be pulled off without a hitch. As the film reveals itself, however, Blondie’s devotion becomes more apparent. The desperation becomes more understandable. Her hostage Carolyn at first comes across as a detached socialite, yet as time passes, the bond reveals more under the hood. It’s a bizarre clash of cultures between two people who would normally have nothing to share. A recent and balanced article about Altman’s M*A*S*H highlighted a sense of sexism within the film. However, I would not say this of the director himself. Films like Kansas City and 3 Women (1977) try to examine the complex nature of female relationships. As in this, we’re never truly sure who has the upper hand until the film’s climax.
While Kansas City is mainly buoyed by these two fascinating female performances, Altman also invests time in socio-political aspects of the era. A slightly stiff sub-plot involving Steve Buscemi and the local democrats buying votes through vagrants could have done with more focus, yet the film still manages to cast a sly eye on how white people are seemingly blind to black labour. “Nothing runs on Nothing. Whatever you’re doing is using something up,” Blondie states late on in the film, unaware that her husband committed a robbery in blackface; an act which appears to be more insulting to Seldom Seen than the robbery itself.
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Kansas City itself is shown to be a city which runs on black cab drivers, maids and cleaners, who seemingly keep the white world running through the depression. Belafonte’s Seldom Seen at one-point rasps about television: “These white people spend all day thinking of all this shit… then they believe it.” A moment which holds a dark sense of humour, when we consider the actor speaking this line is known for his civil rights work, and not for playing hardnosed mob bosses. But it’s a line which also reminds us of Altman’s 1992 satirical Hollywood hit piece, The Player, which gleefully reminded us that whoever controls the image, controls the viewpoint. Altman uses jazz as the heartbeat of Kansas City. The black workers are the lifeblood. Meanwhile Democrats are using vagrants to buy votes.
Although it stutters around a rather treacly middle segment, the film finishes strongly as the sense of a bond seems to form between the two women, as does a sense of regret from both. Much like The Coen brothers Miller’s Crossing (1990), which is set in the same period, as both films have characters who seem to realise that the life they lead may not be what they want. While the Coen’s play their film out with intricate plotting and ironic humour, Altman, as with so many of his movies, crafts a looser text, which holds a sharp contrast in comparison to the more stylised view held by The Coens.
The extras on the Blu-ray feature overviews by Geoff Andrew and Luc Lagier, along with the usual trailers and TV spots often found on Arrow discs. If the overviews do anything however, they serve as a strong reminder that Ron Mann’s wonderful 2014 documentary on Altman exists and is worth seeking out in conjunction with catching up on the so-called minor Altmans.
Kansas City is out on Blu-ray on 2nd March from Arrow Academy.