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Music Movie Mondays: Kansas City

August 23, 2010

Few directors divide up a room full of film snobs like Robert Altman, even if they’re fans. Genius auteur or studio hack? Feminist ally or venerate misogynist?

Depending on the movie, I’ve felt all of these markers apply to the mercurial director. I’ll defend Nashville, California Split, The Player, 3 Women, The Company, most of Short Cuts, and the great-though-overpraised McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I loathed Dr. T and the Woman and could not get through Tanner ’88. I still don’t know what to do with Brewster McCloud, though watching a movie where bird shit is used as an augury in as magnificently appointed a venue as Austin’s Paramount Theatre is a memory I’ll always treasure. Kansas City, which stars Harry Belafonte as gangster Seldom Seen and features musicians Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Geri Allen as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Mary Lou Williams.

I also don’t know what to do with 1996’s Kansas City, a Depression-era crime caper. I was interested in seeing it after reading Krin Gabbard’s essay “Kansas City Dreamin’: Robert Altman’s Jazz History Lesson.” Gabbard uses the movie to make the case for how movies construct histories through the interplay between imitation and inspiration. He also links Kansas City to notable characteristics in Altman’s oeuvre, particularly his employment of black actors, his interest in depicting interracial interactions, and his use of music to cohere seemingly unrelated characters and narratives. All three components are evident in Kansas City, which stars Harry Belafonte as gangster Seldom Seen and features musicians Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Geri Allen as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Mary Lou Williams.

Gabbard also posits that Altman is linking himself to the subject matter, noting the movie’s place and time as where and when the director and co-writer came of age. The clearest indication of thematic confluence resides in Albert J. Burnes’s performance as a prepubescent Charlie Parker, who was five years older than Altman and, like the director, is positioned as a fan and student of his favorite musicians. I feel uncomfortable with the pairing, as this supposed kinship needs considerably more nuance around the two men’s racial identities and class backgrounds.

Furthermore, I find Altman knows little of what to do with Pearl Cummings (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a pregnant black teenage girl who befriends Parker after the society ladies who are supposed to check her into a safe home to deliver her baby fail to collect her from the station. Her story collides with the main plot, which focuses on a gun moll named Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnapping Carolyn Stilton, a local politician’s wife, (Miranda Richardson) to barter for her husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), who’s under Seen’s heel. Though I like Blondie and Carolyn’s burgeoning friendship amid tense circumstances, Leigh makes the deliberate and unfortunate choice of overplaying Blondie as a hard-boiled imitation of the character’s film idols.

While certainly an interesting exercise, Kansas City left me with little to celebrate.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 6:42 am

    Personally I think of Altman as the great community builder of filmmakers. But then I don’t actually hang out with “film” people, since they tend to have the most awful taste in films. Anyone who finds a lot of misogyny in Altman’s work is digging a bit too deep and really needs to find more to do with their time. He ain’t Kubrick or DePalma.

    Kansas City is meh. Nashville is a safe, overrated bet, just like Short Cuts and the player is awful. I actually love Dr. T. It’s subtle and unlike most of Altman’s films, it doesn’t serve up “the message” so neatly. folks have to do their own legwork. I find most people want their message served up easily and can only point out the obvious flaws/triumphs, which has got to explain why so many people like Nashville. It’s mediocre at best.

  2. August 24, 2010 7:12 am

    Oops! I loved this post, btw. I just have strong feelings regarding Altman! Again, I just love debating film.

  3. Alyx Vesey permalink
    August 24, 2010 9:37 am

    In my experience in UT’s media studies department, if you wanted to get a bunch of scholars in a fight, the surest ways would be to mention Robert Altman or Lars von Trier and then watch the sparks fly.

    Dr. T and the Women?!?!?!?! No Snarky no. It ends with him delivering a boy, a symbol of patriarchal stability after the three hours of lady crazy he endured. Nooooooo. I’d like to read your defense, even though we’ll probably have to agree to disagree on that one.

    I’ll grant you that Nashville and Short Cuts are overrated (as is McCabe), though I still love the first one, even if it hits its subject on the head too squarely. I keep thinking of pairing it with Secret Honor for some July 4th celebration that may or may not happen.

  4. August 24, 2010 10:18 am

    I think what I liked about Dr. T, was for the first time Altman was able to capture the culture and rhythm of a particular group of women – in this case upper middle class women of Dallas. I also think Laura Dern and Kate Hudson gave brilliant performances. The ending only was a cop out because the child was boy, but I did love showing the birth in all its glory. I thought on the whole Dr. T was a really brave film, despite being really flawed (I definitely am surprised by my love for it as well). I find Kansas not to hold up as well as it didn’t when I originally viewed it, though honestly I didn’t like it much then either.

    I think Altman occupies conversational slot that rightfully belongs to Lumet, Forman or Hal Ashby. But then I know I wouldn’t fly in a film studies program anywhere because Syd Pollack is my favorite director and amongst film snobs he’s considered corny and lightweight. Even Peter Hyams and Mr. Mirren (Taylor Hackford) have more meat in their resumes in terms of stirring up fights. Altman is merely an edgier version of Neil Simon or Blake Edwards, though that’s hardly an insult.


  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Kansas City « Feminist Music Geek

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