Short Cuts

Short Cuts ★★★★½

I’ve only read one Raymond Carver story, and as far as I’m aware it’s not one that Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt adapted for Short Cuts. Consequently, I don’t feel especially well-placed to comment on whether the film does justice to his work, as I tend to do when I see a film based on something I’ve read (and considering how much has been made of Altman’s faithfulness to the spirit of Carver’s writing). But the benefit of lacking this contextual knowledge is that I can watch Short Cuts as a film unto itself, and not as something beholden to something else’s vision. Which is lucky, because as a film unto itself, Short Cuts is pretty special.

It was released in 1993, one year after The Player had returned Altman to the front rank of American filmmakers, and it was met with a far more mixed response than its predecessor. Critics disliked what they perceived as its sneering mean-spiritedness - a charge that I’ve seen applied to other Altman films, and one that’s always confused me. It’s possible that I’m just not good at parsing a filmmaker’s moral and emotional attitude towards his subjects, but it’s also possible that those critics are wrong. In all the films of his that I’ve seen, I’ve found little evidence to suggest that Altman was a cynic, but equally little to suggest that he was a romantic. Instead, he’s always struck me as someone who makes films about people because, quite simply, he finds them to be compelling subjects for study, and not because he wants to celebrate or condemn them. Why do either of those things when you can spend your time marvelling at this strange and incomprehensible thing we call the human condition?

Luckily, Short Cuts provides plenty of space for Altman and us to do just that - it’s three hours long, and peopled by no fewer than 22 Angelenos whose lives intersect in often surprising ways. Among them are: TV commentator Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison), who lives an apparently blissful suburban existence with his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) and their young son; jaded waitress Doreen Pigott (Lily Tomlin) and her alcoholic chauffeur husband Earl (Tom Waits); Gene Sheppard (Tim Robbins), a bad-tempered cop who cheats on his wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) and makes up ludicrous cover stories; Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), a divorced helicopter pilot feuding with his ex Betty (Frances McDormand); Stuart and Claire Kane (Fred Ward and Anne Archer), a couple relying on her income as a party clown while he’s unemployed; boozy jazz singer Tess Trainer (Annie Ross) and her virtuoso cellist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer).

In basic terms, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a hyperlink film, in which a large ensemble of seemingly disparate characters are revealed to be closely connected. It’s agreed that this film kickstarted the decade-and-a-bit-long craze for that kind of structure (Happiness, Amores Perros, Love Actually, Crash and of course Magnolia are all virtually inconceivable without Altman leading the way), but what’s interesting is how this approach separates it from much of Altman’s other work. In films like MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, Altman focused on bringing people together, finding a lifelike spontaneity in their incessant milling and chatting. In Short Cuts, however, the everyone-is-connected ploy is taken in a different direction: by networking the characters as he does, he separates them spatially, inviting us to pay attention to what links them thematically. And for the most part, the thing that links them is their discontent.

Very few of the characters in Short Cuts are truly happy. Although most of them have families, barely any of them seem to know the right way to connect with the people in their life. This is a world of dysfunction and paranoia, often centring around sex: Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) is obsessed by the possibility that his wife Marian (Julianne Moore) may have once had an affair, while Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) is disgusted by the way his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) multitasks phone-sex work and caring for their small children. Some of the characters drink to submerge their unhappiness, which has the effect of deepening someone else’s unhappiness, while others are simply obliviously amoral. There’s even something troubling about the ones who do seem happy, like the Weathers’ son Chad (Jarrett Lennon), who enjoys his small universe of cartoons and action figures but mostly seems to be talking to himself. But it’s not the case that Short Cuts presents a totally nihilistic and solipsistic world, and some of the storylines end by reaffirming the value and possibility of human connection - for the time being, at least.

Being an Altman film, Short Cuts doesn’t build from scene to scene but rather exists as a series of discrete moments dictated by the characters’ words and actions. It’s littered with sudden, sharp insights into who these people are, moments that land as well as they do because of the genius of the actors and director in thinking to seek them out. A scene towards the beginning when Ann gently upbraids Howard for wearing glasses on the air and is met with an impatient “shhh” suggests that the two aren’t entirely on the same level despite their happy marriage. There’s an endearing moment when Gene tries to sell Sherri a line about having to deal with kids on crack, and at the end of the scene it turns out that Sherri has been fighting back laughter the whole time - does she secretly treasure his infidelities for these moments of amusement? Perhaps most trenchant of all is a scene in which the true depths of Zoe’s isolation become harrowingly clear, and just like that our whole understanding of the character is flipped on its head.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of that fiendish finale. What exactly it means probably differs from viewer to viewer; to me, it’s a way for Altman and Barhydt to demonstrate with a flourish the chaos and unpredictability of life: the characters are so absorbed in their own problems that an event of this magnitude - geddit? Magnitude? - ought to give them some perspective. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the preceding three hours, it’s that things don’t always resolve themselves as neatly as we might expect them to.

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