Judge Patrick Bromley hates L.A.
From two American masters comes a movie like no other.
The 1980s were hard on Robert Altman. Having been lauded as one of the most important and influential of all American directors during the '70s—likely the finest decade for American cinema since its inception—Altman hit a wall in the following ten years, beginning with the big-budget disaster that was Popeye and closing with O.C. and Stiggs (his last theatrical film of the '80s). Altman all but fell off the map during the decade, relegated to returning to his television roots and failing to find major studio interest or secure financing for a new theatrical picture.
Then, with the release of the blackly comic hate-letter to Hollywood, The Player in 1992, Altman became the toast of Tinseltown (who were either desperate to prove their good humor or were simply happy for the attention, be it negative or otherwise). Recognizing the value of striking while his studio iron was hot, Altman finally used his newly regained clout to push through a pet project he had been developing for years—an epic adaptation of the short stories of author Raymond Carver. That film became Short Cuts.
Facts of the Case
Short Cuts is adapted from nine short stories and a poem by the late author Raymond Carver, centering on the lives of the citizens of Los Angeles. It weaves multiple narratives and plot lines together, several of which are as follows:
• A husband and wife (Bruce Davison, X-Men, and Andie MacDowell, Groundhog Day) cope with a son who has slipped into a coma on his birthday, while being harassed by the baker (Lyle Lovett, The Opposite of Sex) responsible for the birthday cake.
• A fishing trip is interrupted when the men (Fred Ward, Miami Blues; Buck Henry, The Real Blonde; and Huey Lewis, Duets) discover a dead body in the river.
• An alcoholic jazz singer (Annie Ross) struggles to connect to her depressed daughter, a classical cellist (Lori Singer, The Last Starfighter).
• A police officer (Tim Robbins, Mystic River) cheats on his wife (Madeline Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans) with a single mother (Frances McDormand, Fargo), who is being harassed by her jealous ex-husband, helicopter pilot Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher, The O.C.).
There are other stories to be found in Short Cuts—some which spring forth from those mentioned here, some that exist altogether separately, all of which combine to form a stunning mosaic of American life in the 1990s.
From its opening moments, there are elements of jazz throughout Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but do not be fooled—this is not the director riffing. This is his symphony. If The Player showcased Altman picking up steam, then Short Cuts finds him at a full sprint—he is at the absolute height of his creative and technical abilities, working with a similar canvas but painting with finer tools. While still making use of his trademark directorial elements—the observatory camera, the unbroken takes, the overlapping dialogue—Altman shows a mastery of storytelling not typically found in any of his previous works. The reason for this is more than likely the fact that he's working from such strong source material; though many of the stories found in Short Cuts are only loosely based on Carver's writings, the screenplay that Altman has adapted (with the help of Frank Barhydt) provides the director with his strongest narrative blueprint since Nashville. For the first time in a long time, Altman isn't concerned primarily with capturing moments or observing his characters from a distance. Here, he closes in on his actors spatially and his characters personally, achieving a rare intimacy and shaping the film into a searing, funny, altogether moving portrait of love, family, sex, and death that is nothing short of brilliant. It is the director's 28th theatrical feature, and arguably his best.
It has been nearly twenty years since Altman's Nashville, and we have not Learned Our Lesson. That was a film about human contact, about our need to connect in any number of capacities: physical, emotional, sexual, familial—even the country music community that provided the movie's backdrop allowed for its characters to connect. By 1993's Short Cuts, however, those connections have become a fruitless pursuit; we are cut off from one another, attempting to dull ourselves with sex and alcohol (at some point, nearly every character in the film engages in one, the other, or both). Even the sex has become deadened and remote—Jennifer Jason Leigh operates a phone sex line as she diapers her baby and pays bills, but can barely manage to sleep with her husband; Julianne Moore (in what might be the movie's best scene) stands naked from the waist down, leveling her husband with a confession of a past indiscretion, all the while casually ironing a skirt—she's emotionally and physically naked, yet never more guarded.
It may be the lack of any connection between most of the characters in Short Cuts, or it may be the emotional deadening that they're chasing after, but the individuals found in the movie don't even seem to notice as their world gives way to chaos. The film begins and ends with an assault on the citizens of Los Angeles, the first from above and the last from below—the Earth threatens to open up and literally swallow these characters whole. At one point or another, every character's life intersects with the life of another; sometimes, it is a deep (but broken) connection—characters related to one another in ways we aren't initially aware of—but most often the intersections are transitory. These lives are a series of random occurrences and chance encounters; a mix-up at the photomap or the retrieval of a lost dog provide are among the settings in which otherwise estranged characters cross paths. Altman is not looking to find meaning in these encounters; their very randomness—that failure to make a connection—is the whole point.
None of the previous work done by any member of Short Cuts's ensemble will prepare you for their performance here. Consider, for example, Andie MacDowell, who began her career by having her entire performance dubbed over by Glenn Close; her work as the distraught mother of a comatose boy is nothing short of revelatory for the actress—she has yet to outdo herself. MacDowell's character is the heart at the center of the film (Annie Ross's jazz singer, in a parallel story about family and loss, is the boozy soul); in an absolutely devastating performance, she never steps wrong. The great Tom Waits, primarily known for his music career (but discovered as an actor by Jim Jarmusch), is equally as strong as the desperate, alcoholic husband of Lily Tomlin (effective in another of her rare dramatic turns for Altman); together the two paint a heartbreaking and strangely beautiful picture of two people brought together by sadness and need. I could go on about the movie's uniformly outstanding cast, but I would simply be repeating myself; one would be extremely hard pressed to find a better ensemble than the one Altman has assembled for Short Cuts.
God bless The Criterion Collection. Not only are they consistently putting out the best discs on the market, but their selection of films is always first-rate—either rare or unreleased foreign classics, masterworks of American cinema, or previously undiscovered gems. Short Cuts falls into both of the latter categories—it's a brilliant film that never received the attention it so richly deserves (The Player and even Gosford Park remain better known Altman films), and Criterion's work on the DVD of the film does not disappoint. It boasts a newly restored digital transfer, approved by the director himself and presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is pristine and gorgeous; detail is razor sharp and colors are bright and beautifully rendered. The Dolby digital 5.1 soundtrack is all-encompassing, making full use of all channels (listen to the helicopters in the opening sequence for proof); while the 2.0 track provides a perfectly serviceable presentation of the dialogue and haunting jazz score, the 5.1 is preferable if only for its channel separation.
On the second platter of this two-disc set is a rich host of extras: a feature-length documentary on the making of the film provides a welcome look into Altman's creative process (and takes the place of a filmmaker commentary, which is missing from the first disc). To supplement that piece, and to allow for some modern-day perspective on the film, a new half-hour interview has been conducted with star Tim Robbins and Altman (Robbins interviews the director); the two cover a range of topics, and reflect on the film's significance in both their careers and within the lexicon of American film. A number of pieces have been included about Raymond Carver, without whom Short Cuts would not have been possible, which help to flesh out the life and work of the short story master. The disc's best inclusion—and a first for the Criterion Collection, as far as I know—is a paperback book, packaged right alongside the disc, reprinting the Carver stories adapted by Altman and Barhydt in Short Cuts.
Short Cuts is one of the best films of the 1990s, and the Criterion Collection gives it another of their benchmark treatments, making for one of the best DVD releases of 2004.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview with Robert Altman and Tim Robbins
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