From two American masters comes a movie like no other.
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a massive cyclorama painting of a movie, taking an abundance of intimate short stories (pulled from a collection written by Raymond Carver) and weaving them into a majestic-yet-crushing portrait of human life in late-20th century Los Angeles. The people in these stories tend to be so preoccupied with what’s happening in their own life that they don’t seem to notice what’s happening in the lives of the people around them: these are bubbles within a larger bubble, and Altman’s alternately pitiless and empathetic all-seeing eye takes them all in (a notion suggested by the sweeping helicopter shots that open the movie).
Some of the characters are the upper-class L.A. socialites you’d expect to see in a dissection of the city (one of the first scenes finds a handful of characters attending a cello concert, where they whisper excitedly about the fact that Alex Trebek is in the audience). However, Altman’s view is fairly broad: the people here are a mix of rich and poor, contented and frustrated, quiet and blustery, brainless and thoughtful (they’re all white, though, which made more sense in Carver’s Pacific Northwest setting than it does in a city as diverse as L.A.).
The film’s running time may seem daunting, but there’s a remarkable consistency to how engaging these stories are and how absorbing the world as a whole is. As in Nashville, M.A.S.H., A Prairie Home Companion, Gosford Park and many other films, Altman sets a very particular tone that seems to center the constantly-overlapping mayhem of the movie. However, Short Cuts can be a considerably more punishing experience than most of Altman’s work, because this particular world is so steeped in anxiety and desperation. In so many of these stories, we can’t escape the sense that things could take a very ugly turn at any moment.
Many of the stories involve married couples, and many of their relationships are facing some sort of test. Take the story of Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn, True Romance) and his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), for example. They have a fairly ordinary life: a nice house, two kids, steady income. He cleans pools, and she runs her own phone sex line. Lois is also largely responsible for taking care of the kids, so we frequently see her engaging in lurid conversations with clients while she’s actually dealing with the tedious tasks of parenthood: changing diapers, making meals, cleaning up. Jerry starts paying more and more attention to the convincing act Lois puts on for her customers, and begins to feel frustrated: why doesn’t she talk to him like that?
Or look at Earl Piggot (Tom Waits, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and his wife Doreen (Lily Tomlin, Nashville), who respectively work as a cab driver and a waitress. Their relationship is a never-ending series of endurable peaks and valleys, with Earl’s alcoholism usually to blame for their problems. However, a new source of tension is added when Doreen accidentally hits a young boy with her car. The boy gets up and appears to be okay, but Doreen is scared of the legal consequences and flees the scene after determining that the child isn’t seriously injured. Alas, within a few hours the boy has slipped into a coma.
The boy’s father is Howard Finnegan (Bruce Davison, X-Men), a prominent local newscaster who is married to stay-at-home mom Ann (Andie MacDowell, Four Weddings and a Funeral). The boy’s hospitalization leads to a surprise visit from Paul Finnegan (Jack Lemmon, The Odd Couple), Howard’s estranged father. Initially, Paul seems almost absurdly ill-equipped to deal with the emotional gravity of the situation, trying to make mindless small talk and catch up on old times while Howard and Ann are fearing for their child’s life. Later, however, Paul reluctantly offers an extraordinary monologue revealing the truth of his past, the depth of his shame and the truth of what he’s really feeling. It’s an extraordinary moment, and a striking example of the sort of emotional crescendo the film delivers over and over again.
Those are only a few of the many stories in the mix, and there are so many fine performances performed in so many different keys that attempting to find time to praise them all would be a fool’s errand. Tim Robbins’ buffoonish cop (a devastatingly funny and somewhat frightening portrait of alpha male insecurity) and Julianne Moore’s free-spirited artist (who harbors a secret that leads to yet another dramatic explosion) and Robert Downey, Jr.’s sleazy photographer and Fred Ward’s no-nonsense sportsman all seem like characters from different movies, but Altman successfully unites them in his cinematic pressure-cooker.
Music plays a key role in bringing the film’s disparate threads together. Mark Isham’s moody, jazzy score brings a uniting undertone of uncertainty to many different story threads. Even more effective are the lounge songs performed by Annie Ross (who gets her own turbulent storyline), which often seem to function as the purest expression of what many of the characters are feeling (“To Hell with Love” and “Prisoner of Love” are among the cuts included). The film doesn’t build to the sort of grand thematic statement these “overlapping storyline” films often seem fond of, though it does build to something nearly as startling as the climax of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (this film’s spiritual companion piece). However, one of those lounge songs seems to capture what the film is getting at:
You may mean me some good,
You may mean me some harm,
You may be a fire,
You may be a false alarm,
‘Cause I don’t know you,
I don’t know you,
I don’t know you.
Short Cuts (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that helps viewers better appreciate this busy world. Altman tends to favor a lot of medium-to-long shots that let you soak in the entire scene at once, and the exceptional detail offered by the transfer aids that approach immensely. There’s a moderate layer of grain present, flesh tones are warm and accurate and the image benefits from impressive depth. Equally strong is the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which weaves Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue, the busy sound design and the music together nicely. Supplements include a 90-minute documentary on the making of the film, a 57-minute documentary on Carver, a half-hour conversation between Tim Robbins and Robert Altman (recorded in 2004), deleted scenes, music demos, lots of trailers and TV spots, an isolated score track and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Wilmington. Alas, the Blu-ray release does not offer a copy of Carver’s book, which was included in Criterion’s previous DVD set.
Short Cuts is arguably Robert Altman’s finest film of the ’90s (for me, it’s aged better than The Player) and an incredibly ambitious achievement. It can be emotionally punishing at times, but it’s worth the effort.