Vice Squad

Robert Altman busts human nature–again.

Kansas City

Directed by Robert Altman

Fine Line Pictures; 110 minutes

(kcname.avi):Blondie O’Hara and Carolyn Stilton discuss Carolyn’s pet name for her husband.

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From Nashville, with its vulgarian singers and serpent politicians, to The Player, which equated Hollywood executives with murderers, Robert Altman has been the dean of American film revisionists, our most relentless exposer of power-lust and greed. His latest project takes us to Kansas City, Mo., 1934. It’s a setting with much new vice to indict–a lawless sprawl co-owned by a corrupt local Democratic boss and the Mafia, profoundly segregated, yet held up by a hypocritical white elite as an example of harmony. It also happens to be the place where Robert Altman grew up, which means that for the first time in his career, he takes on the very atmosphere in which he honed his eye for sin.

Given this stake in the material, you might expect a more elegiac feel, a new note of personal reverie. The cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton, renders the action in a beautiful palette of rusts, taupes, and dark teals–the muted hues of an old hand-tinted photograph. But the story, which Altman concocted with Frank Barhydt, another Kansas City native, revisits a familiar and rather impersonal theme: Americans’ soul-deforming obsession with celebrity. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Blondie O’Hara, a working-class gal who worships Jean Harlow. (She used to bleach her hair platinum like Harlow, but too many doses of peroxide made it fall out, and now it is dark brown, with the crinkly texture of steel wool.) In the opening scene, she stomps into a colonial mansion and kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), a society matron and laudanum addict whose husband, Henry, is an FDR adviser on his way to Washington. Blondie, we learn via flashbacks, is trying to save her husband, Johnny, a thief who has committed the amazing stupidity of sticking up an associate of the town’s leading black gangster. She wants Henry Stilton to exert some pull–to call out the mob, if that’s what it takes–and keep the black gangster from killing Johnny.

Altman is famous for setting his central characters amid a maze of side stories and a barnyard racket of random overheard dialogue. While Blondie and her elegant captive drive around town waiting to hear if Johnny has been sprung, preparations are underway for municipal elections the following morning, which gives the director several opportunities to point out the baser motives of the so-called civic-minded. Steve Buscemi plays a cruel Democratic henchman who trucks meek workers to the polls and beats up dissenters. Jane Adams plays a snooty Junior-Leaguer trying to stuff charity down the throat of a pregnant black girl, whom she views as a trophy. Altman takes special pains to point out the moral evasions of that great liberal sacred cow, the New Deal. Michael Murphy, who appeared as a political handler in Nashville and a presidential candidate in Altman’s cable-TV series Tanner, here plays Henry Stilton, a member of FDR’s revered Brain Trust, as a scrubbed preppy with the soul of a hologram. He gets off the train to Washington and begs the governor to help rescue Carolyn, but keeping his reputation clean is clearly a higher priority than saving her life.

A >ll this aside, Kansas City really turns on Blondie and Carolyn’s unfolding story. Richardson, delicate and enigmatic, keeps passing up chances to escape Blondie’s clutches, and we’re never sure if her docility is due to idiocy, fondness for her captor, or some evasive, self-serving strain of high-class anomie. The film marks a promotion of sorts for Leigh, who was merely one of a large ensemble cast three years ago in Altman’s Short Cuts. As Blondie, the best mimic of her generation appears to have become the director’s main muse. Altman encourages her habit of magnifying a few weird mental and physical ticks: This time, in addition to the hair, she plays up a psychotic scowl and cosmetically enhanced tooth decay. The fact that Blondie is a loser locked inside a bad impression of Jean Harlow further exaggerates a deliberate parrot-like inappropriateness in Leigh’s performance. Her paranoid, staccato way of talking recalls not Harlow, but James Cagney. She’s less a person than a didactic idea–an embodiment of the way pop culture destroys poor whites.

Less mannered, but almost as fake, is the role of Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), the black gangster who gets to decide whether Blondie’s husband, Johnny, lives or dies. (Dermot Mulroney plays this unfortunate part, which mostly consists of standing inside a ring of black men and looking scared.) Seldom Seen is dapper and mysterious, and as a black man with the fate of a white man in his hands, a rather obvious focal point for the movie’s inquiry into race relations. Belafonte gives him a stylized ambiguity: Though enraged that Johnny has robbed a black friend of his, he’s also something of a blithe traitor to his race. He tells mean jokes endorsing Marcus Garvey’s campaign to return American blacks to Africa, and while he mulls endlessly over Johnny’s punishment, he dispatches the thief’s black accomplice with horrifying casualness.

It’s a witty, compelling performance, though like Leigh’s, it feels a tad borrowed–Brando with a dash of Sidney Greenstreet. But Altman saddles Belafonte with a huge handicap: Hardly any of the dozens of other black men in the film utters a word. (Hardly a black woman talks, for that matter, except for two sweet maids, who feel uncomfortably close to the stoic black cinematic maids of old.) A weird, unintended segregation seems to be at work. It’s as if Altman, unsure how to work blacks into the foreground of a scene, settled on a policy of passive and accusing stares. Without anyone to interact with, Seldom begins to seem an inexplicably cold man who lives among mutes.

The silence is all the more striking for two reasons: first, because Altman so clearly means to probe racial tensions of the period, and second, because Kansas City at this time was the birthplace of modern jazz, and it’s hard not to believe that this black art form, and not the made-up story of Blondie O’Hara, is what inspired him to make the film in the first place. Altman’s style, after all, aims for a jazz-like dialogue between digression and structure. And, to accompany the action, he has gathered the best young talents in jazz to reincarnate the likes of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Jay McShann, Count Basie, and a handful of other innovators.

T >hat Altman shot the jazz scenes well after the rest of the story was in place ought to give them a detached quality of ironic defeat. Yet somehow the musicians come across as the least detached characters in the movie. Toward the end of one long jam session, Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman) fall into a “cutting contest,” a competitive back and forth that lasts a thrilling seven minutes. This could easily have been a hackneyed, questionable image–two black men engaged in a duel of prowess. But, unlike anything that has gone before, this scene unwinds in the present tense, with spontaneity, integrity, respect for the pain and praise for the rewards of effort.

The rest of Kansas City, on the other hand, feels like an exercise in contempt. The white characters step on the black, the strong step on the meek, and everyone double-crosses everyone else. Altman’s grief once seemed a revelation. With this movie, it begins to look like a misanthrope’s stubborn routine.