Kansas City

Seldom Seen: You like picture show?

Johnny O'Hara: I can take it or leave it.

Seldom Seen: Well, I recommend you leave it.

Robert Altman is smarter about race and class than most other directors in Hollywood, but since he's not seen as a "political director," (unlike Tim Robbins or John Sayles, for two examples) it's seldom mentioned in reviews of his work.

But watch the beginning of Cookie's Fortune, and see what tricks he plays on the audience, how he gently tweaks our prejudices. Willis Richland is drunk. We see him leaving a bar, and buying a bottle to take with him. He drops that bottle outside the bar when a patrol car cruises by, so he goes back into the bar to steal another bottle to replace the broken one. On his way home, we see him knock on the window of a van where an attractive white girl is sleeping, and we see her turn out the light, pretending she isn't there. Then we see him climb clumsily into the kitchen window of a rich woman's house.

Nothing big is made of it, but none of these events is what it might seem to be, and Altman is chiding us for the assumptions we're making because Willis is played by Charles S. Dutton, a hefty, middle-aged Black man.

Altman tweaks bad screenwriting (here and in other of his recent movies, particularly the beginning of The Gingerbread Man) the same way David Cronenberg does in eXistenZ. But what he's really getting at is not the screenwriters, but us. He's telling us that we need to think about his movies, not just experience them to be distracted, and, in exchange, he'll give us a movie that's worth thinking about.

This intelligence, specifically about race and class, is especially visible in Kansas City, but it's really just a backdrop for the movie's main concern, which is the movies in general, and how dangerous they can be when used as a guide for life.

Seldom Seen: All that "Amos & Andy." White people just sit around all day thinking up that shit. And then they believe it.

Blondie O'Hara lives for the movies, in fact most everything she says, and how she says it, and even how she stands and walks, comes right out of the movies. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance was criticized in some reviews for being annoying, but that's exactly the point. It's always annoying when somebody goes through their life acting as though they're in a movie that only they can see.

Blondie's husband Johnny, similarly swayed by the movies he's seen, has come up with a ridiculous plan to rob a successful Black businessman, disguised in blackface. The businessman was on his way to lose his money gambling at the Hey Hey Club. Once Seldom Seen, who runs the club, finds out, his men snatch Johnny almost before he has the burnt cork washed off.

When Johnny's wife Blondie learns what has happened, she concocts a scheme to get her husband back by kidnapping Carolyn Stilton, hoping to force her husband, a big-time political power broker, to engineer Johnny's release.

The miracle of Blondie's plan is that it works even as well as it does, but it's definitely the sort of plan that only a dedicated movie-goer would ever invent. Carolyn Stilton is a drug addict and spends the entire movie doped up on laudanum, but in the end she's far less drugged than Blondie. In fact, amusingly, at one point they kill time in a movie theater showing a Jean Harlow film, and even when they step into the lobby to make a critical phone call, Blondie can barely tear herself away from the film, which she's seen several times before.

The movie comes back again and again to a back room in the Hey Hey Club, where Seldom Seen is talking to Johnny O'Hara, trying to figure out what to do with him (and seeing, in the process, if Johnny is capable of learning anything). Seldom Seen knows immediately that Johnny, like his wife, takes both movies and radio far too seriously, saying that Johnny, "comes swinging in here like Tarzan, into a sea of niggers."

Seldom Seen: Come on, let's go hear some music.

But there's a balance to the cautionary view of movies, and that's the jazz. Altman assembled many of the best young jazz musicians in the country and had them play at the Hey Hey Club. Their music runs throughout the film, which takes place in a single night. It starts with the musicians wandering in and unpacking their instruments in the club in the late afternoon, playing idly, sitting out at the tables, greeting old friends, getting ready for a long night.

Then, as the evening progresses, the band plays for real, including what develops into an incredible cutting contest between two tenor sax players.

And finally, as the movie ends, the sky is light outside but it's still dark in the club, Seldom Seen is counting his money, and a couple of bass players are playing a final quiet melody.

Altman clearly loves jazz, and he knows that it tells a lot more truth, about everything, but especially about Black people's lives in this country, than the movies ever have. And, it's clear that he knows clubs, from the casual time before the doors open and the audience comes in, to the incredible feeling when everything is going right, for both musicians and audience, to the way it can still be the end of a dark, wonderful night in a club long after it's already bustling morning outside.

In fact, I've read that it was over a few drinks one night that Altman got Belafonte to agree to play Seldom Seen, and I'd like to think they were hearing some good jazz at the time. Apparently Belafonte was originally reluctant to take the part of a gangster, a murderer and a drug user. He thought his audience wouldn't accept him in that type of role. Altman looked him in the eye and said, "Belafonte, who started the rumor that you were an actor?"

And, of course, that was that. Like musicians in a cutting contest, some challenges you can't back down from.

Kansas City (1996)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt
Blondie O'Hara : Jennifer Jason Leigh
Carolyn Stilton : Miranda Richardson
Seldom Seen : Harry Belafonte
Henry Stilton : Michael Murphy
Johnny O'Hara : Dermot Mulroney

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