SHORT CUTS: That’s Life

Short Cuts is a mosaic of day-to-day existence, conveyed in the sort of crisscrossed structure only Robert Altman could manage so well

Following the success of The Player (1992), which was widely regarded as a return to form for director Robert Altman (even though eclecticism is often what defined the best of his work), Short Cuts seemed to fall even more in line with the prototypical Altman feature. Primarily, this view hinged on the depiction of a multifaceted narrative and an assembly of numerous individuals entwined in an intersecting network of storylines. In that regard, Short Cuts is indeed a model example. It’s a mosaic of day-to-day existence, conveyed in the sort of crisscrossed structure Altman could manage so well, filled with darkly comical moments of tragedy and sorrow, warmth and joy. And sometimes, because it’s a Robert Altman film, any given scene can bear all of this at once.

Released in 1993, premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Short Cuts integrates around twenty central characters, shifting in and around the sweeping landscape of residential Los Angeles (this opposed to the Pacific Northwest, the standard site for Raymond Carver’s source short stories). Most of those featured comprise a couple of some sort, living within distinctly varied stations of economic and social prosperity. Motivated by lies, ambitions, and banal endeavors, these people are lovers and neighbors, family members and friends, or they are simply casual strangers unknowingly allied in some cosmic social synthesis. To embody this tapestry, Altman assembles a staggering ensemble, a cast perhaps more impressive now than it was then, for several of those who were once indie favorites are now Oscar-winning Hollywood superstars. Included in the congregation is Claire Kane (Anne Archer), who works as a clown and is married to the unemployed Stuart (Fred Ward), an avid fisherman but a man who seems utterly unmoved by anything outside his own life, be it a floating corpse or Alex Trebek. Then there’s Lois Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who engages in profitable but indifferent phone sex for a living, doing so as she tends to her children, making out a tawdry schedule covered with animal crackers, and perturbs her husband, Jerry (Chris Penn), who wishes he was on the receiving end of such a titillating exchange.

Some of the characters are immensely sympathetic, like Andie MacDowell’s Ann Finnigan, whose secure, affluent life with husband and television personality Howard (Bruce Davison) is turned upside down when their son is hit by a car. Others are decidedly dislikable, particularly philandering police officer Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), who is married to an exhausted, resigned housewife named Sherri (Madeleine Stowe). More than an hour in, the instantly entertaining Jack Lemmon shows up as Howard’s father, while Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits appear as Doreen and Earl Piggot, a problematic twosome who are nevertheless among the more charming of Short Cut’s characters and could easily hold a movie of their own. Add to this roster (the cast received special recognition at Venice and at the Golden Globes): Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, and Buck Henry.

That these indiscriminate glimpses proceed as they do, with the degree of sustained interest they have, stems not only from the roundly compelling performances, but from Altman’s considered oversight. He works up a slow, simmering tension, which threatens to boil over any minute as years of compiled deceit and disappointment yield jarring revelations and related conflicts. The ensuing dramas involve children and pets, suicides and homicides, and so much pent-up hostility that it’s a wonder the body count doesn’t end up higher than it does. The minor and major turning points, the peripheral crises and anxieties, all are presented with the sense of something bigger than their individual relevance, because of their evident personal influence but also as if the picture was leading to some grand pronouncement. But this distinguishes Short Cuts from several of its classically “Altmanesque” predecessors. Had Altman chose to take a more pedantic route, Short Cuts could have easily ended up a prosaic series of morality plays: it hits on elements of environmentalism (a toxic spray for the dreaded Medfly and the repeated presence of Captain Planet); it’s chock-full of infidelity and familial cruelty; and it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the consumption of alcohol. Yet there is no grand ambition here, no metaphoric point to be made, and as Short Cuts co-writer Frank Barhydt points out, unlike Nashville (1975) and A Wedding (1978), for example, there is no one event to unite the disparate characters (though they all feel the effects of a routine California earthquake). Like Nashville, though, Short Cuts is a shrewd national sketch, but it is one without such weighty political consequence.

Altman, who received his fourth of five Best Director Oscar nominations for Short Cuts, likened a film like this to lifting the roof off a house and peering in at private lives caught unawares. Fittingly, the film adopts a correspondingly objective style, with voyeuristic roving cameras regularly kept at a distance—cinematographer Walt Lloyd employs leisurely zooms with varying degrees of subtlety, mixed with measured pans to canvas a given setting or rapidly pushing forward for dramatic emphasis—and with more intimate scenes of (literally) full frontal expressiveness. Though Altman and editor Geraldine Peroni cut between scenarios to keep the vignettes more isolated than the crowded arenas inhabited by other Altman troupes, Mark Isham’s score lingers throughout, a jazzy refrain that aurally bonds the storylines and gives the film its ambient extension. In many ways, Short Cuts itself resembles a jazz composition, in that miscellaneous players work out different beats and combine different tones to ultimately construct one collaborative motif. But don’t take this informal, even-tempered style for granted; Altman can easily provide a swift, emotional punch.

Writing with Barhydt, who also worked with him on Quintet (1979) and HealtH (1980), and would again on 1996’s Kansas City, Altman weaves together nine Raymond Carver stories and one poem (adding two characters of his own). Discussing the material in Luck, Trust & Ketchup, a making-of documentary included on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, Altman considers the entire Short Cuts spectrum “one story,” which is essentially what it feels like. It’s a cohesive, colorful medley, humorous (an amusing photo mix-up at the end) and nihilistic (asked how things are going, Jerry sardonically responds, “The bad guys are winning”). Running just over three hours, Short Cuts proceeds at a phenomenal pace, dropping in and out of the subplots in a way that is clear and steady and never tedious. The film is also as much about its assorted surroundings as it is about those who populate these locales. Like character occupations or their material possessions, the locations are defining features, manipulating behavior and the aesthetic makeup of the film. Taking place in coffee shops and trailer parks, in living rooms and, because it’s Los Angeles, in cars and around swimming pools, Short Cuts is a lively portrait of its respective city. And it’s a Los Angeles more accessible and modest than most, even if Annie Ross’ aging singer Tess Trainer declares, “I hate L.A., All they do is snort coke and talk.”

Unlike Altman’s prior multi-character tales, and with limited instances of his trademark overlapping dialogue, few of the interactions in Short Cuts involve large groups of people. Instead, he opts for more compact snippets of self-contained situations, with just a handful of characters or less. The emphasis is on how these unrelated figures eventually mix and mingle, crossing small-scale paths linked by jealousies and animosities. Some of the resulting drama derives from profound feelings of guilt and resentment, while other exchanges are based on unremarkable trivialities; some events are a matter of life and death, others are chalked up to arbitrary twists of fate; some of the impact is fleeting, some will change forever the lives of those involved. The characters in Short Cuts are consumed with memories of the past and struggles to maintain the present, but there is little talk about the future. It’s first things first for most of them. As Altman so expertly illustrates, there’s enough to contend with in the here and now.

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