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Altmania: Kansas City Pays Tribute to Maverick Director Robert Altman

Illustration by December Lambeth.
by Dan Lybarger

In an interview I conducted with Robert Altman back in 2001, the Kansas City-born filmmaker lamented “In Kansas City, my films aren't very popular. I am. My films aren't. They don't know about most of them.” Fortunately, his hometown has decided to prove him wrong.

The Kansas City Film Critics Circle and the Film Society of Greater Kansas City will be hosting the Robert Altman Film Festival at the Screenland Granada Theatre in Kansas City, Kans. from Friday, April 27th to Sunday, April 29, 2007. Viewers will be treated to eight of the director’s quirky but often engrossing offerings. The event is a fund raiser for the Film Society, and some of the films are presented in new or restored prints.

As one of the organizers of the event, it has been a pleasure to help make sure these films are finally seen in the proper way. Altman gained much of his following because people saw some of his classics like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” on TV after they had experienced disappointing runs at the box office. The Robert Altman Film Festival is a rare chance to finally see his movies they way they should be seen.[br]

The Granada is a recently refurbished movie house that can house up to 700 patrons, and has the distinction of being one of Altman’s actual shooting locations.

Kansas City: 8:00 p.m.
Altman returned to his childhood home to make this tribute to jazz and sleazy politics. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a small-time gangster’s moll who kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a prominent political figure (Michael Murphy) in the hopes of rescuing her own boyfriend. The kidnapping plot is loosely based on an actual 30s incident involving KC entrepreneur Nell Donnelly. The movie is marred by a sketchy plot and Leigh’s bizarre performance. She’s trying to imitate Kansas City-raised Jean Harlow but instead manages only to irritate. Far better are Harry Belefonte’s creepy turn as the real mob kingpin Seldom Seen Smith and Steve Buscemi’s hilarious performance as a ward heeler. The music and the atmosphere are first rate. The sax duel near the end is a lot more breathtaking than the actual story. Alert viewers will be able to spot the furnishings of the Granada itself during the movie.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller 11:00 a.m.
Warren Beatty gives what may be his best performance in Altman’s haunting reworking of the western genre. Cowboy hats are scarce, but Altman pointed out that photographs from 19th century America weren’t always an accurate depiction of how people dressed on ordinary days. One mesmerizing touch is Vilmos Zsigmond’s creative cinematography, which was designed to make the movie look like faded photos. Altman also makes strangely effective use of Leonard Cohen’s 20th century songs. Beatty plays a slick gambler who founds a saloon and brother, only to see his business subverted by those who feel threatened by him. Julie Christie is the madam who manages the bordello when she isn’t smoking opium. Thanks to their first-rate performances, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” becomes more involving than a simple stylistic exercise.

The Player: 1:30 p.m.
After nearly a decade of exile from the major Hollywood studios, Altman returned to their good graces and an Oscar nomination in 1992 by slyly ridiculing the companies he worked for. Tim Robbins stars as Griffin Mill, a studio executive who takes matters into his own hands when an unnamed writer sends him threatening letters. “The Player” is loaded with amazing technical touches, from its opening eight-minute roaming shot to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue, which requires viewers to watch his films like a hungry hawk. In a lot of Altman’s films your attention will be greatly rewarded. Just about every star in Hollywood appears in the film in either a major supporting role or a “blink and you’ll miss ‘em cameo.”

Nashville: 4:00 p.m.
In 1975, Altman did to country music and politics what he did to Hollywood years later in “The Player.” He also effortlessly juggled 24 main characters and dozens of interlocking storylines. None of this would matter if the characters weren’t so engaging. Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) is a riot as a wannabe journalist who tries to see metaphors in auto graveyards, and Gwen Welles is unexpectedly touching as a singer whose confidence in her career prospects is inversely proportional to her actual talent. Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin both picked up Oscar nominations for this one (as did Altman), and Keith Carradine earned an Oscar for his song “I’m Easy.” Altman proves to be an equal opportunity satirist in “Nashville” because the empty platitudes of a veteran country artist (Henry Gibson) are skewered with the same vigor as the lechery of a folk singer (Carradine).

M*A*S*H: 7:30 p.m.
Altman had spent two decades doing everything from a failed business that used tattoos to ID pets to directing TV and industrial films before he received his first Oscar nomination for this scathing 1970 comedy about a trio of irreverent combat doctors (Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Skerritt) who thumb their noses at the Army. While based on a novel set in the Korean war, Altman did everything he could to make the film an allegory for the conflict in Vietnam. As a result, “M*A*S*H” became an enormous hit because it was the movie the military didn’t want you to see. If your only exposure to “M*A*S*H” comes from the long-running television series, you’ll be in for a shock. The tone is consistently darker in the movie, and the film’s characters aren’t cuddly as their TV counterparts. Altman hated the series and his cynical perspective about war may have come from his own experience as a bombardier in World War II. His wartime experience also may have inspired a featurette that precedes “M*A*S*H.” “The Magic Bond” was a 1956 industrial film by the Calvin Company that Altman directed for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It was one of the last things he made before heading to Hollywood. Although shot entirely in Kansas City, the short features surprisingly high production values. It was shot in color and features the overlapping dialog that would be his trademark in feature films.

Gosford Park: 1:00 p.m.
Altman made his first and last British movie with this typically complex look at the relationship between upper and lower classes during a weekend hunting retreat. Altman and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (“Separate Lies”) create an intriguing hybrid of Agatha Christie murder mysteries and Jean Renoir class dramas. “Gosford Park” is probably an ADD sufferer’s worst nightmare. It often takes a couple of viewings to grasp what’s actually going on, and some really funny scenes will pass you by if you don’t watch them closely. You’ll get more out of “Gosford Park,” if you pay attention to the waistband Ryan Philippe’s slacks or what happens to Sir Michael Gambon’s dog. If you’re not wanting to dig that deeply, the performances from Clive Owen, Dame Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson and Maggie Smith will keep you delightfully occupied. Jeremy Northam did his own signing and piano playing live as he impersonated real British entertainer Ivor Novello (Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger”). Altman earned his last Oscar nomination for this one.

Short Cuts: 4:00 p.m.
Altman and fellow Kansas Citian Frank Barhydt teamed up for this skillful 1993 retooling of Raymond Carver’s short stories. In a way that only Altman could imagine, a fishing trip goes horribly wrong, a family tries to cope with how a car accident has injured their son and Los Angeles frantically tries to adapt to both an earthquake and a medfly invasion. This is arguably the best ensemble cast Altman ever worked with. Bruce Davison, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor, Julianne Moore, Tom Waits, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all at the top of their game.

A Prairie Home Companion: 7:30 p.m.
Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show provided the inspiration for Altman’s final movie. It retains the director’s usual cynicism, but it also maintains the droll charm of the series. The film is full of low key delights from Virginia Madsen’s turn as an angel of death to Kevin Kline hilariously embodies Keillor’s recurring detective Guy Noir. Lindsay Lohan proves that she can be more than a punchline to rehab jokes when she applies herself. Fans of the show finally get to see what Sue Scott, Tim Keith and Tim Russell look like, and Altman ends his career following the first rule of show business, “Always leave them wanting more.”

To find out more or to order tickets, click here.

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originally posted: 04/17/07 15:09:43
last updated: 04/22/07 12:28:08
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