Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a mosaic of people who are perpetually faced with bad decisions and who constantly take the wrong path. So, basically it’s about you and me. A spiderweb crack of broken souls stitched together by geography, relationships, and happenstance, Altman takes his well-traveled formula of regular folks just doing regular folks things and applies them to the disconnected, minimalist tales of Raymond Carver, lyricist of the Pacific Northwestern middle class.
The intertwining tales of twenty-two main characters as they navigate a 48 hour stretch in Los Angeles, Short Cuts is the quintessential Robert Altman film and reflects just what a beautiful match his cinematic vision was with Carver’s literary one. And, remarkably, it’s not a straight adaptation at all. Where Carver’s characters existed in their own vacuums that were ripe with meaning in the nine stories that make up the bones of Altman’s film, the common thread afforded to the characters in Altman’s universe is one of miserable parental neglect and colossal personal failure, two themes later played in a similar key in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, itself an operatic ode to casual SoCal connectivity.
Altman also relocates Carver’s rainy and soggy world to Los Angeles of 1993 as it is just on the precipice of technological progress that will forever change the landscape of human interaction. There is no interconnectivity due to the internet but cell phones make an appearance in Short Cuts,though they are of the Zach Morris variety and look more like blunt instruments than tools of communication. In the world of Altman, people are linked together by television programs and natural disasters, both major and minor. In Carver, the only thing connecting the characters is the book binding and the author’s name at the top of each page.
Some of the stories Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt utilize for the film survive in a form resembling completion. “So Much Water So Close to Home,” the story that makes up the action involving Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry, and Annie Archer, is more or less intact. Other stories are stripped for parts; “Vitamins,” an epic tale about a man who carries on with his wife’s co-worker, only faintly exists in the club confrontation between Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Darnell Williams.
In this world, people meet randomly at concerts, bump into each other in parking lots, and otherwise drift in and out of clustered orbits due to their professions. Class is separated by a phone line as sisters gab with each other amid the chaos of their spouses leaving for work, one a doctor and the other a motorcycle cop. Race is bisected by hospital rooms, with two different kids’ lives hanging in the balance, one is black and one is white; both are victims of the dumbest luck imaginable. People invade each other’s space and engage in transference of energy, creating and destroying as they go oftentimes so absorbed in themselves that they’re oblivious to the wreckage they leave behind.
In Short Cuts, the children are either over-coddled or dysfunctionally adrift. Parents hold dark, wounded secrets and keep their offspring distant by design lest they have to reckon with the damage their choices have caused. Jack Lemmon’s estranged father is one of his most painfully realized characters of his entire career. When he wanders into the film at the halfway mark, he’s treated as if he is a stranger who has been lost for thirty years. We soon learn that he’s been living in Riverside which, despite being about an hour’s drive from his son’s house, might as well be on the other side of the world. When Annie Ross’s adult daughter shows up at the club in which Ross works, the owner is stunned to learn she even exists even though she lives with Ross nearby.
Pursuits are futile. The fish, the symbol of an event that creates a schism between a fisherman and his wife, goes up in smoke before it can be eaten. The cake, the center of the film’s nastiest (and cruelly hilarious) passages and a representation of the last vestige of a grieving mother’s dead son, ends up in the goddamn trash before she can even see it. Death is dealt with in a stark, unsentimental way. These things happen and this is what it looks like. A woman who is raped and killed creates a moral and practical quandary for a group of fishermen but it emotionally waylays another character. A deadly attack on a young girl, generated from emasculated sexual insecurity, is misidentified as an earthquake accident. Things shake up, people fall down, but everyone seems to survive and move forward.
I realize that the descriptions above make Short Cuts sound like a depressing slog or a funeral dirge but nothing could be further from the truth. Altman’s precision-oriented focus on character causes every single line of dialogue (often, in true Altman fashion, overlapping with other lines of dialogue) has a breath of life and even when they go wrong, the characters’ actions seem as familiar as muscle memory. Unless you’re an uptight, humorless bore, human foibles are only no fun when they’re yours but they’re highly entertaining when they’re being displayed by someone else. Short Cuts is literally like people-watching a cross section of American society without any of the voyeuristic guilt. And with the film’s impossibly perfect cast giving some of the best performances of their individual careers (Tom Waits has entered the chat), the film should be seen as downright irresistible to anyone interested in the craft of giving an understated performance lacking in all pretense.
Like California Split, the Los Angeles landscape is almost gone its own character, steeped in the functional ordinariness from the pavement-up instead of the Hollywood sign-down. And, just as the previous year’s The Player existed on the edge of change, Short Cuts is a snapshot of an America in rapid flux. Those cell phones will get smaller, our worlds will grow and shrink simultaneously and, parking lot photo huts, the location of the film’s best gags and once as ubiquitous and recognizable as the red roof of a PIzza Hut, will soon be replaced with drive-up ATM’s.
Stylistically graceful, threading the stories of randomness and chance with clever match cuts and seamless transitions, the canvas may be as busy as any Altman film but it’s never not a clear view of humanity at its most mediocre while attempting to be just good enough. A celebration of remarkable ordinariness that uncannily matches Raymond Carver’s triumphs in minimalism, if not for Nashville, Short Cuts would be Robert Altman’s crowning achievement.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain