Recently, after an exhausting day filled with travails of every kind, I settled in on my couch to watch a movie for pure escapism. This movie ended up being a used vhs of Robert Altman's Kansas City that I had just bought for about the price of a gum ball. I had myself braced for mediocrity, since this was an Altman movie I was unfamiliar with, but no. Kansas City is engrossing and expressive, representing the kind of playfulness that Robert Altman was known for. A great deal of screen time is given simply to the interplay of jazz musicians at the Hey Hey Club, the raucous underbelly and heart of Kansas City. I like the observational style of cinema, the sheer joy of watching that Altman encourages with his many performance-centric features. With Altman, you often feel at home with a film. His wide shots, overlapping dialogues and grand panoramas are as realistic as they are virtuosic; his sparing use of close-ups makes you feel like another, unseen person in the same world the characters inhabit. He lulls you into a sense of realism and sneaks in a close-up every now and then to allow you to engage and empathize. But the distance keeps the events from ever becoming histrionic. Instead, the empathy you feel for the characters is something that is slowly developed, leaving a gentle ache for them, rather than a feeling of being manipulated by the filmmaking (although, of course, that is inescapable).
This is sort of a female buddy movie, laced with gender and racial politics. The central story is the relationship between Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her captive, Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the wife of an ambitious senator (Michael Murphy). What ensues is Stockholm syndrome of a sort, as the two women, who are obviously members of very separate classes, develop a bond born of empathy. Blondie is desperate to retrieve her husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) from the Kansas City mob, controlled by the far-reaching Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Johnny is a small time criminal who crosses the mob by committing a robbery in blackface. Johnny is white; the mob is black.
Hoping to use Mr. Stilton's political sway to remedy the situation, Blondie kidnaps Mrs. Stilton, who seems to recognize from the start that Blondie's efforts are a pointless exercise. Stilton spends most of her screen time stoned on opium, which might provide some inkling of how enjoyable she finds life as a senator's wife. In the mean time, Mr. Stilton's actions reveal that his main concern with her kidnapping it its affects on his campaign. Mrs. Stilton misses countless easy opportunities to escape capture. While this at first might be deduced to her drug use and resulting mental incapacitation, it begins to seem more like loyalty to her captor, and reluctance to face the vacuum of her home life. Then, by the end of the movie, it is apparent that she is much more cognizant that we ever could have realized.
The final act really stuck with me on this one. The moral of this experience is that even the overlooked films of a master auteur are worth hunting down.