Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #3 - Goin' to Kansas City

by Harlan Jacobson

May 13, 1996

"I left Kansas City when I was 18 and went into the Air Force," Robert Altman, recalled after the press screening of his "Kansas City" in Cannes, Sunday. The '93 Palme d'Or winning director ("The Player) said returning to Kansas City to film the jazz-based movie about 1930s political machine corruption, left him with a "cold nostalgia."

"I knew the streets and places but none of the people. So some old man or woman would come up to me and pull out a picture and say 'This was us in kindergarten.' And I'd look at them and they were *old*," Altman laughed. "Now I realize why vampires avoid mirrors: When you're inside here and can't see your reflection...well, I'm going on 32."

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brooke Smith and Miranda Richardson were in tow with Altman, with Richardson recalling that - in line with her disheveled character - she came to the set a little drunk and after that "I got very spacey."

"Yes, you did," seconded Altman.

"Yeah, we went shopping one day," said Leigh, "and came back and I said 'I hope that's not your car, Miranda. The engine was running and the keys were locked inside."

Altman also took a swipe at the film's production company, which he did not name, but is the French CIBY 2000, itself very active in US productions. "We had a tragedy on the crew," the director said, adding the producers were concerned about money and "had no compassion for what had happened."

This is not to mention the tragedy on the screen. Croisette regular Jennifer Jason Leigh continues the string of squashed bug performances that began with "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and tracks through "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "Georgia", in which she was very good, largely because her down and out character seemed less a stretch than her stylized dames from the 20s. In "Kansas City", if the banality of the storyline had not chucked out all possibility of suspending disbelief, JJL could have been saddled with being a picture killer. She plays, sigh, a two-bit moll, out to save her incompetent two-bit thug of a boyfriend. Her screen time, somewhere north of 50%, is nothing but grating, and she sounds like she's been dubbed by Olive Oyl (oh, these self-referential directors). But you can't lay it all on her - she was just called in to do a variation on a character theme she has beaten to death. Time for a new agent.

Taking pains to dismiss the story, Altman said- if he said it once, he said it a hundred times - "The picture is a jazz riff," about the hometown jazz scene of the 1930s. Well, that worked for me, sorta, but something else worked more. My father was born in 1902 and grew up in Kansas City in the same neighborhood, 18th and Vine, in which Altman filmed. Bob's movie let me see the world my Daddy saw, right down to the push button light switches in the parlor. I contented myself with that, the coincidental wonderment of movies when you can sit in the dark and summon the dearly beloved dead.


Julie Sisk's American Pavilion tent, parked outside Cannes Film Festival's Grand Palais, proved once again Saturday night that with the right program - like a live telecast of the big NBA playoffs game in which the New York Knicks clipped the Chicago Bulls by three points in overtime, Saturday night - it can draw more Americans than steak-frites draws flies. 20th Century-Fox Searchlight imported two 25-inch TVs to show the game, and the big tent, a home-away-from-home to US film and media, divided between Bulls fans watching one set, Knicks fans the other.

In Cannes for a special showing of "Girl 6," Spike Lee paced up and down between the two camps in the Pavilion, shouting instructions to the Knicks' Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Derek Harper on how to stop the Bulls Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Since the Knicks won this one, maybe Lee oughtta watch all the Knicks game from France. They do better with him here than at the Gardens was the reigning theory, until the next night the Bulls struck back with a 94-91 win in the final seconds. Spike took solace in a meal at the Colombe d'Or in St. Paul de Vence, Monday night.

Maybe the best way to enjoy Cannes is the way the Spike is this year. He has gotten beaten up so many times here in competition in the past, from "Do the Right Thing" to "Jungle Fever" - which caused him to complain bitterly his last time in competition that Cannes is for white boys only. By showing "Girl 6" out of competition, the Spike can chill out, load up on butterfat, feast his eyes on a city full of Girl 6000s, and hang out at the American Pavilion, cheering on his beloved Ewing.

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