Short Cuts

Short Cuts ★★★★★

No one does unsentimental humanism better than Robert Altman.

P.T. Anderson may have found more mainstream success with the ensemble shenaniganry of Magnolia and Boogie Nights, but as far as I'm concerned, Robert Altman is still the wiser, more sagacious, and daring filmmaker. And Short Cuts proves this without a shadow of a doubt.

Who knew that the world of Raymond Carver gelled so perfectly with that of Altman's? It makes the slick garbage that is Birdman Or pale in comparison; Inarritu tries to incorporate Carverism into his show-biz tapestry, but falls flat on his face. Altman doesn't try to stick closely to Carver's hell-raising morality thinkpieces; he uses them as a framework for his own distinct, artistic vision. The result? The entirety of Los Angeles condensed into a taut 188 minutes of virtuouso filmmaking.

Those who rail against Short Cuts for its "dated" qualities miss the film's point entirely. They harp on how "the Big One" (i.e., the earthquake) is an irrelevant thing to be concerned about today, they complain that it "takes them away from the ability to register the film as Anywhere, U.S.A." They let the distinctly-90s vibe of the film distract them from the film's magic: its subtly-drawn character moments. Whatever happened to "mood-setting"? Short Cuts is about a distinct place (Los Angeles) at an even-more distinct time period (the early 90s). Of course EVERY film will show its contemporary hand once in a while. You've just got to simply turn off the Big Honkin' Alarm in your cinephilic brain that rings "DATED" and grapple with the REAL reason you're here: the people. The milieu. The connections.

(Also, I'm a bit biased, since I come from L.A., but DAMN, let me be the first to say that Altman nails L.A. down to the tee.)

Short Cuts grapples with a myriad of elements and theme (fate, fidelity, murder, rape, masculinity, sadism, wrong impressions, psychosis, chain reactions, alcoholism, suicide, the show-bizzz world, racism, sexism, homophobia) without seeming like it's grappling with anything at all. It is a strange paradox, but believe me, once you've seen the film, you'll understand what I'm talking about. It's only when the film is over that you realize you have been awash with so many little grains of truth that grow to ever-larger rocks of truth about human existence. Like any "Altmasterpiece" (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, 3 Women, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, The Player, Cookie's Fortune), if you're willing to engage with what the Big A has to say, you'll find that the film stays in your subconscious longer than you expected. A character moment, a bizarre quirk, an inconspicuous detail that you didn't think particularly relevant when watching will suddenly spring back on you when you least expect it. The same can be said with pretty much any of the 22 performers in Short Cuts.

Well, what the hell's this film about, you may ask?

A surprising amount.

(Now, these are just surface-level things I picked up on near the film's end that I wanted to share. There comes a time near the final third of an Altman movie where it kicks into high-gear. The first 2/3rds is a delightful setting-up of the characters: who they "are", where they come from, how society and their friends and family define them, etc. But somewhere in the final third, you're suddenly hit with the realization that you've known these people all your life. They are your friends. They are your lovers. They are your unrequired loves and dead teachers and homicidal bakers. [That last part is a bit random, but it happens!] And WITH this realization comes a greater understanding of why Altman and co. decided to make this movie in the first place.

This is a film worthy of a 60-page research paper, at the very least. I only give a couple of things that Altman asks us to consider along the course of the film:

1.) Short Cuts's world is painstakingly honest. It shows how people LIKE to hurt each other, whether or not they mean to. It happens when the Finnigans confront the lunatic baker in his shop to guilt-trip him about their son. It happens when Tess intentionally (?) brushes off her suicidal daughter Zoe when Zoe needs Tess the most. (Zoe, by the way, is how you do a compulsive bizarr-o character who is obsessed with suicide, NOT the loser pathos of Bud Cort's dull Harold in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude.) To some degree, everyone likes to deliver torture, but no one likes to take it in.

2.) Short Cuts continues what Demy's Model Shop (also set in L.A.) started. It is a world that, much like Demy's universe, is riddled with missed connections, chance encounters, tantalizing "What If?"'s. To think that one of the most emotionally-devastating storylines in the film could have been avoided had Mrs. Finnigan decided to drive her son to school one morning.

3.) The world is ripe with obscene ironies: little paradoxical moments that make up the grand Human Comedy that is portrayed in nearly all of Altman's films. I reference, specifically, the Chris Penn-Jennifer Jason Leigh couple, a sexless couple where the girl is a phone-sex operator during the day. She coos to her clients about how she wants to make "his cock nice and wet so she can suck it" (NOT his dick, though; she hates the word "dick"), while, all the while, she changes her daughter's diapers in as clinical a manner as you can get. There is also the astounding supporting performance by Jack Lemmon, who very nearly steals the show as the aging patriarch of the Finnigan family. In the hospital, Lemmon cares more about the prognosis of a complete stranger's son (who was shot on the I-10) than of the prognosis of his own grandson. But these odd quirks are not "quirks" in the moment; they seem natural when they occur, but when we reflect about it, we think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I DID that!" Dead girls in fishing-pools? Lunatic bakers calling at 2 o'clock in the morning? We accept the logic, like we accept the logic of an Altman dream-world or a Carver short-story, but when we look back on it with unfrosted eyes, we can't help but question,"What the hell WAS that?"

4.) People don't like to change their habits and ways-of-life. If they've got one routine, they want to stick with it 'till the very end, dammit. The fisherman storyline with Buck Henry, Fred Ward, and Huey "Hip to Be Square" Lewis is a perfect illustration of this.

5.) People like to dance around the simplest questions as long as possible. They hate to be upfront about things; we LOVE to be coy and purposely ambiguous. When the truth eventually comes out, though, we explode in pent-up rage, and emotions that we never thought ourselves capable of expressing come out in all their raw (un)glory. I talk, specifically, of the tense scene where the artist wife Julianne Moore comes clean to the husband Matthew Modine about a one-night fling she had with a man who complemented her artworks--something that Modine NEVER does. He's prudish about her artwork, which is comprised mainly of streamline nudes. ("If it's naked, it's art?" he snidely questions.)

6.) After the boozy bar-chanteuse Tess Trainer (Annie Ross) brushes off her suicidal cellist-daughter Zoe, Tess sings "I don't know you..." to the bar-crowd. But who is she singing to? If she's thinking about her daughter Zoe (Lori Singer), then she's being honest, because she REALLY doesn't know her daughter. But, paradoxically, she ISN'T singing with the emotion that the song "I Don't Know You" calls for (i.e., a frustration, an INABILITY to penetrate the person's psyche), because she doesn't care enough about her daughter's well-being to recognize that she doesn't know her. Altman seems to be asking the larger question, "How much of the art we put out in the world is genuine? How much of it comes from actual emotions we feel inside ourselves? And how do we measure genuine emotions to play-acting?" (Or, in Tess's case, play-singing)?

7.) The people in this word may SEEM quirky at face value. And, indeed, Altman has made it his life's work to bring out the glorious penchant for quirkiness that exists in all souls. But, at the end of the day, these quirks DON'T define a person. At the end of the day, they're merely decoration, because everybody has the capability of being a holistic, thinking, feeling being. Think, for instance, of the baker, who, up until the film's closing minutes, has been a source of crude laughter and ironic bemusement. He verbally abuses the Finnigans for refusing to pick up their son Casey's birthday-cake, without realizing that Casey is in the hospital and that they obviously cannot pick up the cake. But once the situation is explained to the Baker at the end of the movie, he ceases to be a Bizarr-O for the sake of being bizarre. He FEELS something. He's FELT things all along. The fact that he's HOMICIDAL doesn't define him; what ultimately defines him is his ability to empathize, to say he's genuinely mortified at his past behavior, and his offer of freshly-baked muffins to the distraught Finnigans in their time-of-need. THAT'S what the cinema of Altman is all about. Setting up people to be one thing, and then pulling the rug under our feet when they end up being something larger. It's what happens when Altman, with one haunting shot, humanizes the annoying BBC reporter Opal in Nashville, and it's what occurs here on a much grander scale.

Short Cuts is a masterpiece, plain and simple. It is Charactermite Art of the highest quality, to semi-paraphrase Manny Farber. It doesn't try to be an arsty-fartsy achievement, at times it seems totally unaware of the emotions that it registers. But in the end, it says a great deal about how humans interact, abuse, and love each other than any other movie I've encountered in a long time.

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