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Close Enough for Jazz

Altman blows hot and cold in Kansas City


By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

I can’t think of another American director who understands jazz—its immediacy, its vitality, its extended bursts of inspiration—the way Robert Altman does. He doesn’t just get the music; he’s somehow absorbed its spirit, made it his own. When Altman’s really cooking, as in Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or The Long Goodbye, he conducts his ensemble casts like an expert bandleader, allowing them to solo and spiral off into uncharted territory. No other director is so fully open to the possibilities in his material. Even when Altman doesn’t connect—as in too much of Short Cuts or all of Prêt-a-Porter—he’s never boring: His weakest work still holds the flickering promise of the unexpected.

Kansas City, Altman’s new film, is his first to deal specifically with the jazz milieu—the brief subplot in Short Cuts notwithstanding—and passages of the movie are the best work of his career. It’s an absolutely beautiful job of direction, so fluid and graceful that I’d recommend seeing the film even though it’s ultimately a disappointment. Not since Nashville has Altman intercut so many narrative threads so seamlessly or created so strong a sense of place and time. Altman’s filming of the story is so superb that it almost makes up for his scripting of the story—but not quite.

Set in the 1930s, when Altman’s hometown was a crossroads where gangsters collided with jazzmen and political bosses, Kansas City revolves around the renowned Hey Hey Club, a smoky speakeasy where the greatest jazz musicians of the era gathered to jam. Inside, the vicious gang boss Seldom Seen (a riveting Harry Belafonte) holds captive a brash young stickup man, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), who not only robbed one of Seldom Seen’s associates but had the nerve to do it in blackface. Outside, Johnny’s ditzy moll, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), hatches an improbable scheme to set Johnny free: She kidnaps Mrs. Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the laudanum-addled wife of a Roosevelt political operative, intending to use her husband’s clout as leverage.

The kidnapping plot is the convenience that allows Altman and coscreenwriter Frank Barhydt to move freely between rich and poor, blacks and whites, men and women, artists and politicians. But it never becomes anything more than a convenience. We don’t believe Seldom Seen would waste a day-and-a-half deciding Johnny’s fate, and Blondie and Mrs. Stilton—the movie’s two central characters—have so little impact on the proceedings that they could easily have been written out of the script.

Even worse, the two lead actresses, Leigh and Richardson, give elaborately misconceived performances. Leigh’s unhinged, brassy Jean Harlow imitation is brave but exasperating, and Richardson’s dithering, though meant to be deceptive, obliterates the character. Even the colorful glimpses of Kansas City politics lack definition—we don’t even know who the candidates are, or what’s at stake in the movie’s big election. Altman has often been accused of not being able to tell a story, but his assembling of the many complex plot strands is masterful; it’s the central narrative that doesn’t hold.

The sketchiness of the writing is too bad, because Altman’s recreation of Kansas City in the 1930s is something to behold. Photographed by Oliver Stapleton in the muted shades and hazy light of a Gary Kelley illustration, every frame seems both distant and alive, as if a window had been opened on the past. Stephen Altman’s astounding production design, with its echoes of Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper, erases any traces of the present that remain. As always, director Altman excels at suggesting the many untold stories that bring depth and scope to his tableaux. Even his location shots are studded with lighted windows, through which barely glimpsed inhabitants represent an entire world operating offscreen.

Whenever Altman returns to the Hey Hey Club, we suddenly sense why he wanted to make the movie. There’s a sequence in which he recreates a famous showdown between master saxmen Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and it’s flat-out thrilling—the best-filmed musical sequence in a movie since Stop Making Sense. Altman doesn’t fracture the rhythm with fast cutting, the way a show-off would: He fixes his camera on the two musicians, here played by modern jazz idols Joshua Redman and James Carter, and lets them dictate the movement. As the camera whips back and forth between the two men, the suspense hurts—we hold our breath to see if Redman and Carter can pull it off, and if Altman can match their virtuosity. He does. When the two men end up face to face, honking their saxes at each other in open warfare, the rush is exhilarating. You can feel the director’s delight in the music and his pleasure in being able to hit those high notes.

It’s Altman’s joy in filmmaking, though, that makes his screenplay’s cynicism so wrongheaded. The plot machinery seems tailor-made for a Preston Sturges farce, or at least a big, bumptious social comedy. But the movie’s message is tragic: Willful romantics are no match for agents of power and money. It’s a recurring theme in Altman’s work—we remember poor McCabe’s body, obscured by falling snow—but his filmmaking here is so exuberant that the downbeat ending is a slap in the face. The ending is foreshadowed in the script, but it just makes the script seem that much more contrived. The pleasures in Kansas City come from the jazz band in Robert Altman’s head, and not the notes he’s written on the page.—Jim Ridley

Animal Crackers

A wise man—a member of Spinal Tap, I believe—once said, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” The new film adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau doesn’t just approach that line, it dances the Macarena all over it. Based on H.G. Wells’ classic pulp novel about the quest to create a master-race of animal-men, The Island of Dr. Moreau starts as a meaningful thriller and ends as a buggy, campy freak show. Which illustrates another truism—one artist’s probing examination of “what makes a man” is another artist’s excuse to have a man in a hyena suit run around and blow things up.

The Island of Dr. Moreau opens with a nerve-rattling credit sequence, after which we meet Edward Douglas (David Thewlis), a castaway adrift in a rubber raft in the middle of the ocean. Douglas is rescued by a rugged young doctor named Montgomery (Val Kilmer), who carries him to the mysterious island of the reclusive Nobel laureate Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). Since his disappearance, Moreau has been performing odd experiments—mixing up the genes of humans and animals in attempt to bioengineer the perfect, peaceful human being.

When Douglas discovers the beasts during a harrowing run through the jungle, they’re a disturbing sight. As designed by makeup artist Stan Winston, the animal-men are realistic and jarring; as directed by John Frankenheimer, they’re at once poised and constantly straining against their animal nature. The humans in the film always seem in imminent danger of having their throats ripped out.

After a taut, creepy opening, though, Frankenheimer loses control, and The Island of Dr. Moreau devolves into a series of oddball, inexplicable improv scenes. Marlon Brando waddles around in a muu-muu and pancake makeup, impersonating Margaret Thatcher; Val Kilmer chain-smokes marijuana and impersonates Marlon Brando; and the man in the hyena suit writhes nonstop in an apparent impersonation of Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors. I am not exaggerating any of this. If you’re not baffled by the five-minute “back rub” scene—during which Brando pontificates about life’s changes with an ice bucket on his head—I invite you to behold the scene in which Brando lectures about the differences between Schoenberg and Gershwin while Hyena-boy snarls in his ear. The Island of Dr. Moreau becomes so awful that it creates a whole new category of “must-see”—you want others to experience the film just to confirm that you didn’t dream the whole thing up.

Once the mad doctor is offed and the inmates take over the asylum—a metaphor for the film, surely—The Island of Dr. Moreau goes explosion-happy. Apparently, Moreau was spiking his genetic brews with gasoline; the island is fairly littered with drums of the stuff, each of which bursts into flames amid a chorus of inarticulate animal cries. Say what you will about the crazed cabaret of Brando and Kilmer, at least their indulgences aren’t boring. The explosive finale is.

The film ends, however, with one of the most unintentionally funny scenes I’ve seen in a while. David Thewlis is set to sail away from the Island when he looks back on a few assembled animal-men and says, absently, “I’ll send someone back for you. Surely somebody can...I know, doctors...scientists...surely somebody can figure out what Moreau was up to.” In response, Ron Perlman (in a ram outfit) quietly and sadly shakes his head. I know exactly how he feels.—Noel Murray

Bleacher Bummer

The superstar athletes of today want pretty much the same thing as their jock ancestors: to compete, to win, to be appreciated—and to be paid the going rate for the above. It’s their ill fortune, really, that they have to ply their trade in an era when mere success is underwhelming. The proliferation of mass media outlets, with their insatiable hunger for stories, has led to a level of scrutiny no personality should have to bear. On-field achievements are downplayed, and in exchange the media overvalues the people who don’t do anything: the bleacher bums who pay money to sit, watch, and dream that they could run as swift or hit as hard. Sure, the games don’t make money if the fans don’t come—but once the game is over, how much attention does the fan really deserve?

For about an hour, Tony Scott’s The Fan, based on the novel by Peter Abraham, dives headfirst into the sticky modern symbiosis between celebrities and their admirers. The film intertwines two stories—the arrival of hotshot millionaire centerfielder Bobby Rayburn to the San Francisco Giants, and the deteriorating personal life of his biggest fan, knife salesman Gil Reynard.

Scott shoots both stories with equal flash and drama, drawing parallels between each man’s family pressures (they’re both divorced, with one son) and job pressures (they’re both in a slump). Scott also treats both characters with surprising sensitivity. Wesley Snipes, as Rayburn, is invited to play a more complex figure than the standard spoiled athlete. His Rayburn is cocky, yes, but he’s also terrified of failure, and he’s so enamored of his son that a visit with a cancer patient who shares his son’s name leaves him visibly rattled. As Reynard, Robert De Niro gives a typically edgy performance, but not an over-the-top one—at least not at first. Gil is a pitiable victim of circumstance, done in by a job he’s no good at and an unrequited love for the Giants. It’s no surprise that he’d begin to identify with, and eventually obsess over, the struggles of his team’s biggest star.

Adding a knowing layer of comment to the story is Ellen Barkin as a cynical radio sports-talk hostess who pillories athletes to curry favor with her audience of jaded sports fans. For its first half, at least, The Fan is a creepy and fascinating meditation on the parasitic relationship between the media, the players, and the fans, and each party’s responsibility to the other.

Then a switch is thrown, and The Fan becomes a much different movie. Gil goes from passionate observer to dangerous psychopath, and De Niro goes on autopilot, cruising on the vapors of Max Cady, Rupert Pupkin, and Travis Bickle. Scott cranks up the Gothic lighting and super-close-ups to an unbearable degree, and The Fan becomes a predictable, pointless thriller.

It’s another unfortunate side effect of the modern age that a potentially complicated psychological drama like The Fan feels obliged to degenerate into mullet-headed violence—as though we in the audience wouldn’t get the story without the extra sensation. Talk about insulting! Isn’t it enough to make a compelling character study anymore? Do filmmakers have to treat the audience like the most childish of sports fans by indulging their thirst for blood?

The second half of The Fan effectively ruins the good stuff in the first half. (The last half-hour felt like an eternity to me, but I was probably just disoriented by all the slow motion.) The movie is like a man who gives an interesting lecture and then sets himself on fire. Once he lights the match, it doesn’t really matter what he has to say.—Noel Murray

The second half of The Fan effectively ruins the good stuff in the first half. (The last half-hour felt like an eternity to me, but I was probably just disoriented by all the slow motion.) The movie is like a man who gives an interesting lecture and then sets himself on fire. Once he lights the match, it doesn’t really matter what he has to say.—Noel Murray

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