At its most painful, Short Cuts asks a lot of its audience.
Robert Altman was never known as a miserablist director, but his 1993 film Short Cuts, a three-hour mosaic based on the writings of Raymond Carver, sure has sadness to spare. An ensemble piece that rivals his acclaimed Nashville in scope, Short Cuts can be a difficult watch at times, but the same sharp humor that peppered Carver’s best work keeps the film from slipping into the morass of melodrama that plagued another, well-known Los Angeles ensemble film that unfairly won the Oscar for Best Picture once upon a time.
LA has been a fecund milieu for films with unwieldy casts. Lawrence Kasdan beat Altman by a few years with Grand Canyon (1991), while Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly charged Magnolia (1999) plays like a hyperactive descendent an amplified take on the synchronicities of chance and connection that the late director explored in Short Cuts. There is something about the city’s sprawl – it’s never-ending network of freeways and boulevards, its many neighborhoods and landscapes – that provides filmmakers with an instantly recognizable location and unique identity. It isn’t a place for the everyman. The Los Angeleno is its own special breed, one that Altman skewered in his prior film, The Player (1992), his return to form after more than a decade without an acclaimed film.
Sadness pervades Short Cuts as we watch one couple grapple after their young son is hit by a car and as a group of friends decides whether they should stay and fish at a remote location they’ve selected or report the body of a dead girl they’ve found in the river. Los Angeles is an unforgiving place, a city where youth and beauty is prized. It’s an isolating place where lies and sadness fester beneath the surface. If anything links the nine major stories, it’s sadness, an inability to connect. At its most painful, Short Cuts asks a lot of its audience.
Short Cuts may lack the straight satire of The Player, yet a sardonic edge pervades the film. In his collective of drunks, philanderers, yuppies and bakers who make angry phone calls, a playful celebration of human foibles underscores even the most despicable characters. How else can you explain the moment when Tim Robbins’ scoundrel of a cop asks Anne Archer’s clown, after he’s pulled her over for no reason, how many other clowns can fit into her car?
It’s that type of edge you will find in Carver’s work, who died in 1988 at the age of 50 from lung cancer. A devotee of realism and brevity, Carver focused on the lives of mainly working class individuals. Most of the characters in Short Cuts are decidedly middle class, save for a broody doctor (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife (Julianne Moore) and a news anchor (Bruce Davison) with his stay-at-home wife (Andie MacDowell). If Los Angeles is supposedly a cult obsessed with celebrity and an Alex Trebek cameo is the best Altman wryly has to offer, you know Short Cuts is more concerned with the hoi polloi than the shimmering stars that live above them on Mulholland Drive. So instead of actors we get pool cleaners and phone sex operators, aspiring make-up artists and helicopter pilots.
Carver didn’t write interconnected stories, so Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt found innovative ways to link the different characters in Short Cuts. According to critic Michael Wilmington, “only two of the tales are in a form fairly close to Carver’s.” Altman even completely created one story featuring jazz singer Annie Ross as a grizzled musician and her suicidal cellist daughter (Lori Singer). It makes sense, as a jazz standards soundtrack ties together all the stories, many of them interpreted by Ross herself.
Altman also ekes out some amazing performances from his actors, many of them riffing on some pretty underwritten roles. Musicians such as Tom Waits and Huey Lewis skate by on charm alone, but character actors such as Modine, Fred Ward and Chris Penn dig deep into their wounded male roles and plumb some pretty impressive depths. Moore gives an impressive performance, bottomless, during an emotionally fraught scene while Lily Tomlin’s take on a long-suffering waitress who lives in a trailer with Waits’ alcoholic chauffer is one of the actress’ most vivid and lived-in turns. Altman allows his cast free rein, and that revolutionary spirit is pervasive in Short Cuts, similar to the anything goes spirit of his earlier work such as M*A*S*H* and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Perhaps the best performance feels the most scripted as Jack Lemmon digs deep as Davison’s estranged father who is trying to atone while his grandson battles for his life in a hospital bed just down the hall.
Loneliness and isolation are unescapable, even though many of us live in cities surrounded by other people all the time. We seek connection, but we are incapable of reaching out and truly seeing how we each contend with sadness, success, birth, pain and death. The wounded characters that populate Altman’s Los Angeles (a city that one would think is comprised of only white folks based on this film) struggle and quibble, strutting and fretting like that tragic actor Shakespeare describes so well, unaware or unwilling to recognize that person in the adjacent story is feeling, and struggling, the same way.