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Short Cuts is an L.A. jazz rhapsody that represents Robert Altman at an all-time personal peak—and it came at just the right time in his career. For anyone who believed that what American movies needed most, after the often-moribund cinematic eighties, was more of the old Altman independent spirit and maverick brilliance—and more of a sense of what the country really is, rather than what it should be—the director’s sudden cinematic re-emergence with 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts was an occasion for bravos.
Like many of the other key innovative American moviemakers of the sixties and seventies, notably Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah, and John Cassavetes, Altman suffered through the eighties—though at least, unlike the last three, he managed to survive them. Dismissed after the “debacle” of 1980’s Popeye (a “failure” that is still alive and kicking in a surprising video afterlife), exiled for a dozen years to what was the hinterland of cable TV, off-Broadway, and low-budget “drama” movies, Altman came blazing back to center stage in 1992 with the Hollywood talk-of-the-town art-house hit The Player. Short Cuts confirmed that renaissance.
It was a larger, riskier effort than The Player, but it shared that film’s wide L.A. canvas, omniscient technique, daring, and scathing take on modern life. Both films opened the way to his other remarkable achievements of the next decade, including that sparkling ensemble blend of Agatha Christie and The Rules of the Game, Gosford Park (2001). And in Short Cuts, returning to the style and strategy of his earlier seventies movies—with their interweaving story lines, huge casts, and open-ended narratives—Altman actually topped his official masterpiece, Nashville (1975).
Based on nine stories and a poem by the late Raymond Carver, Short Cuts is a many-sided, many-mooded, dazzlingly structured electronic jazz mural of a city on the edge.
The stories, fused together so seamlessly by Altman, were conceived separately by Carver, and only one was wholly invented for the film (a tragic duet between Annie Ross as a drunken, dying jazz singer and Lori Singer—who does her own playing—as her classical cellist daughter). Only two of the tales are in a form fairly close to Carver’s. Those are the stories based on “A Small, Good Thing” (about a baker who harasses a couple who haven’t picked up their son’s birthday cake, unaware that the boy lies comatose after a car accident) and “So Much Water So Close to Home” (about three fishermen who won’t let the discovery of a nude female corpse disrupt their fishing vacation).
Originally, there were no links among the tales, other than thematic ones—Carver’s sense of modern urban isolation, the misunderstandings, petty cruelties, and sad silences. So Altman and co-adapter Frank Barhydt, Jr., made the links, found the short cuts. The ensemble is large, various—pool cleaners and TV commentators, waitresses and jazz singers, chauffeurs and doctors, phone-sex specialists and bakers, makeup artists and fishermen—and Altman and Barhydt (and editor Geraldine Peroni) concentrate on transitions, leaping from one track to another, making connections between clusters of characters.
How? Sometimes, as in Nashville, one character simply shows up as background in a story where he or she doesn’t belong. Sometimes, characters from different stories will turn out to be relatives. And a few illicit sexual liaisons cross the borderlines, too.
Short Cuts is a jazz variation on Carver’s stories, maybe even a jazz symphony. Improvisation is the key. That’s why a jazz score threads through the film, why the bouncy Duke Ellington–Peggy Lee “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’” is the last song we hear with the end titles.
And that’s why critiques accusing Altman of fudging up Carver miss the boat so completely. It’s as if, listening to Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or Art Tatum riff through versions of “I Got Rhythm,” critics started complaining that Gershwin’s melody was being lost.
Altman’s greatness as a director rests principally in that improvisatory brilliance, in his uncanny knack with actors. (In a cast so large and uniformly superb, it seems unfair to pick any of them out—even though the company’s elder, Jack Lemmon, is the one handed a big, virtuoso, movie-stealing monologue.) It also lies in what Michael Tolkin (who adapted the screenplay for The Player from his own novel) describes as Altman’s ability to free up an entire film company to do their best work, his unique obsession with the whole process of making movies—the fact that he won’t quit, no matter what. (“Admire me,” Altman said once, “not for how I succeed, not for how ‘good’ the films are, but for the fact that I keep going back and jumping off the cliff.”)
Appropriately for a man who deals in irony, he won back the spotlight in the most impudent way possible: by laying bare the excesses, malaise, and hypocrisies of L.A. itself, the very city that had banished him from the inner circles and good tables.
The Player deals with upper-level L.A., the world of the studios, stars, and executive deals. Short Cuts focuses on the middle-class world that surrounds them: the sunny, smoggy subdivisions, where the only celebrity around is Alex Trebek of Jeopardy!—unless you count Bruce Davison as KCAL-TV commentator Howard Finnigan, whose vacuous segment on the medfly war is titled “Thoughts to Make You Think.”
Hollywood studio people tended to love The Player, partly because they recognized the truth of its take on slick-and-slimy deal-making, but also because Altman did it with just enough playfulness to let them off the hook. Yet both of these L.A. movies are fed by the same perception: beneath the thick veneer of glamour and artifice beats a heart of darkness, emptiness, and even despair. It is a moral quandary that goes mostly unrecognized or unvoiced by these people, simply because they make themselves too busy—or oblivious, or stoned—to recognize it.
Short Cuts is one of those marriages of seeming opposites that works. What Altman does with Carver, by placing these people in another of his rich, boisterously populated “collage” films, is to show how every city (especially L.A.) is, in a way, a community of the isolated. Altman’s cuts may even give us more of a sense of truth than Carver’s stories alone, because they recognize more of the absurd and terrible interconnections of life, the consequences that most of us choose to ignore.
Part of the greatness of the film, which is one of the triumphs of recent American moviemaking, lies in the inclusiveness of its portrait, the way it gives such an omniscient sense of character, of milieu. And part also lies in Short Cuts’s recognition that nothing in life is ever resolved, that there are not only no happy endings, but virtually no endings at all.
Michael Wilmington is a film critic for the Chicago Tribune.