Friday, June 6, 2014

Short Cuts

SHORT CUTS            A-              
USA  (187 mi)  1993  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

I never start with an idea.  I always see something. I start with an image, a cigarette being put out in a jar of mustard, for instance, or the remains, the wreckage of a dinner left on the table.  Pop cans in the fireplace, that sort of thing.  And a feeling goes with that.  And that feeling seems to transport me back to that particular time and place, and the ambiance of the time.  But it is the image, and the emotion that goes with that image — that’s what’s important. 
—Raymond Carver, from John Alton, Conversations with Raymond Carver, 1990

I had a lousy night, couldn’t sing for shit.  It was a lousy crowd.  I just hate LA.  All they do is snort coke and talk.  
—Tess Trainer (Annie Ross)

While Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and certainly Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974) are considered definitive movies about Los Angeles, add this one to the mix, set in the suburban sprawl of contemporary life, a film that offers a frightening view of a soulless town that has lost any trace of its once thriving humanity.  The motif of the film is built around the growing chaos of intermingled lives trapped in the petty comedies and tragedies of the Los Angeles lifestyle, with characters appearing unexpectedly within one another’s stories, as once again, in the manner of choreographing 24 main characters in Nashville (1975) and 48 in A Wedding (1978), this time Altman places 22 characters on an epic journey with many different interwoven stories, inspired by 9 Raymond Carver short stories (and a poem), where common themes death and infidelity, also the difficulties in sustaining relationships intersect.  Removed from the Pacific Northwest of Carver’s stories, Altman outraged Carver cultists much as he had done earlier with Raymond Chandler enthusiasts in The Long Goodbye (1973), even having the audacity to add a new story of his own.  Much of the emotional feel in all these films is broken characters that once broken, are never able to reassemble their broken parts quite like they were before, where in essence they’re never fully healed, where a part of their lives remain shattered by traumatic circumstances.  A town of all surfaces and no depth, a heavy price to pay is an absence of love, where Los Angeles resembles a ghost town of moving spirits incapable of love, where it would take an apocalyptic act of God to shake people out of their instilled complacency.   Southern California never looked so dysfunctional, where modernism is associated with bleakness and desolation, yet this plays out as a satiric black comedy, where the characters are clueless how they each contribute to the overall pollution of such toxically self-absorbed lives that they simply don’t have the capacity to love anymore.  One of his most ambitious projects since Nashville, the film was shot in ten weeks, with each storyline filmed in weekly divisions, Altman’s examination of contemporary life in Los Angeles shows people struggling to connect with each other through phone sex or illicit sexual liaisons, suggesting this all leads to avoidance, where people are incapable of speaking openly and honestly with one another.  Something of a reaction to an 80’s culture that featured special effects blockbusters and mindless television entertainment, shown in neverending scenes with insipid television shows watched by otherwise bored and unattended children, Altman’s view of the modern era suggests an absence of responsibility leads to an infestation of violence that is pervasive in American life, particularly against women, where men continue to display a passive insensitivity that is never punished, but only results in more apathy.   

The film has one of Altman’s strongest and most memorable opening sequences, a neon pink, candy-colored, opening credit sequence with pink helicopters flying in the black of night sweeping over Los Angeles to spray for the medfly infestation, which plays out like a foreign invasion that must be eradicated.  Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell play Howard and Ann Finnegan, a news commentator and his wife who are concerned about the toxic quality of the chemicals, from A Small, Good Thing, yet they allow their 8-year old son Casey (Zane Cassidy) to walk to school alone in what becomes the central thread of the film.  In a beautifully conceived single shot by cinematographer Walt Lloyd, Casey is seen running down the sidewalks before he swings out into the street where he is hit by a car driven by a waitress, Doreen Piggott (Lily Tomlin), who is upset by the excessive drinking of her husband Earl (Tom Waits).  When Casey is able to get up (played by the son of a stunt double), he seems more embarrassed than hurt, refusing her attempts to drive him home, as he was taught not to get into cars with strangers, so instead he walks home, head down in shame, as he dreads having to tell his parents he forget to look before entering the street.  By the time his mother gets home later, as she’s ordered him a special birthday cake at a bakery for the next day, Casey is asleep on the couch.  Rushed off to the hospital, he lapses into a coma where he lingers in extensive care throughout most of the film.  Doreen is completely unaware of the complications, as she drove away believing he was fine, failing to get his name or phone number, and while the accident certainly frightened her, she quickly forgets about him.  Lori Singer is Zoe, an overly sensitive classical cello player whose mother is a widowed jazz vocalist, Annie Ross as Tess, the singer of weird, offbeat songs that are quiet, highly personal and introspective, providing emotional cues throughout the film, where she’s one of the few with her pulse on honesty and authenticity, where the irony is she’s can’t reach or communicate with her own daughter in real life, who’s distant and removed, and misses her opportunity to connect when it matters the most.  These jazz interludes help disseminate the narrative mood and lend credibility to a stark emotional realism, as they reflect moments in life when things haven’t always gone right, where in keeping with Altman movie songs that become anthems for the modern times we live in, she sings “I Don’t Know You” SHORT CUTS annie ross i don't know you - YouTube (47 seconds).

Chris Penn is Jerry, the Finnegan’s pool man, who grows increasingly frustrated throughout the film from the occupation of his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a stay-at-home phone sex operator who adlibs raunchy phone sex talk to paying customers while she’s changing a baby’s diaper, bringing to the forefront a working woman’s everyday predicament, while making fun of the pornography and the sex industry.  While this was not in the Carver story (neither is the jazz vocalist), it is in the spirit of his stories, much like Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye (1973), using Altman’s imagination and his trust in actors to write their own scenes, where the conversations are supposedly verbatim from calls Leigh heard in phone sex parlors while researching the part.  Jerry and Lois are best friends with a financially strapped couple, Bill and Honey Bush (Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor), where Bill does makeup for actors in the movie industry, but they’re also housesitting for their more affluent black neighbors next door, almost always seen in a shot through the purplish prism of a fish tank.  Two other sets of couples are introduced at a concert performed by Zoe, Claire and Stuart Kane (Anne Archer and Fred Ward), where she plays a professional clown, while he remains unemployed, and Dr. Ralph and Marian Wyman (Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore), a young doctor at the hospital (who is taking care of Casey), while his wife is a painter of often grotesque, larger-than-life laughing or screaming figures, where they can be heard talking throughout the performance, gossiping about the presence of Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek in the audience, while also arranging a dinner party together.  And finally two other couples are connected by the bed-jumping habits of the husband, Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), an LA motorcycle cop that’s not against stopping women just for their phone number, and his wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe), who suspects her husband is into foul play, as in one scene she literally smells it on his hands, where his latest tryst involves sleeping with Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand), currently separated from her husband Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), one of the nighttime helicopter pilots dropping all the chemicals, a man who refuses to accept the separation, even as Betty can be seen teaching their young son how to repeat the words, “He is a son-of-a-bitch.”  While Robbins takes liberties with his philandering character, seen preening before the mirror in his uniform before heading off to work, he also masters the art of deception by inventing classic lines about the classified nature of his work which prevents him from being able to speak about where he spends all his time away from home.      

While worried about Casey’s medical status, Howard’s long lost father that hasn’t been seen in 30 years suddenly shows up at the hospital, Paul (Jack Lemmon), who uses this opportunity to try to ingratiate himself back into the family, talking to nearly everyone involved on the case, always with a cheerful smile or positive outlook on the day, though one of the scenes of the film is Paul describing to his son that precise moment when his own marriage died, a bewildering descriptive story that couldn’t make his son more uncomfortable, especially considering what he’s going through with his own son, where the results afterwards are positively devastating when the young boy dies, where adding to the heartbreak, Paul can be seen leaving the hospital corridors alone, knowing his attempts at reparations are lost, while the rest of his life will be spent in eternal remorse and anguish.  Making matters worse, when the parents fail to pick up the birthday cake they ordered, both parents are harassed by incessantly insulting phone calls by the baker (Lyle Lovett).  Paralleling this harrowing storyline is the deteriorating relationship between the Kanes where Stuart goes on a three-day fishing trip with two of his buddies, a Carver story, So Much Water, So Close to Home, that was adapted before in Ray Lawrence’s superbly crafted JINDABYNE (2006), where they wander off into isolated territory that takes a grueling hike just to get there, but as they set up tents, one of them discovers the dead body of a naked young girl submerged in the water.  Believing it’s better not to move the body, they continue fishing for the next couple days before finally reporting the incident to the police when they return back home.  The implications of their actions do not reveal themselves until after Stuart returns home and makes love to his wife, telling her about the dead body afterwards, where Claire is horrified and simply can’t handle the blasé notion of leaving a naked woman’s body in the water for days without calling anyone for help, continuing to fish as if nothing had happened, where she actually can’t stand that part of her husband for doing that.  As if to add emphasis, and a recognition of a completely separate female consciousness, the camera zooms in on Claire’s face, expressing her shock and internalized state of anguish in one of the longest shots of the film.  At the same time, Zoe tries to tell her mother about what happened to Casey, the kid next door, and her response, while rehearsing with the band, is offhandedly curt and casual, stepping right back into the song “I Don’t Know You,” where it’s clear her own life has seen so much trouble this hardly even registers, where you just can’t always give a damn.  But for Zoe, it’s a dark and paralyzing moment, becoming even more calamitous when she goes home and commits suicide. 

Meanwhile, after a knock-down-drag-out marital fight between the Wymans about something that happened years ago, one where Marian literally exposes herself in more ways than one, confessing an infidelity to her seethingly angry husband while naked from the waist down, there’s some question whether the truth really changes anything between them, as the division has only widened through the years.  Here resolution remains at a distance as characters vent their frustrations in a moment of hysteria, a kind of primal scream (like her paintings), where a heightened state of melodrama permits them to avoid true emotional connection by making the emotions themselves the object of attention.  The dinner party that both couples were dreading ahead of time turns into this drunken, Fellini-esque spectacle that lasts well into the next day, where neither couple wants to go home, as they once again dread being alone with their partner, where they were having wildly divisive separation issues beforehand.  Altman’s narrative control, as it has done throughout his career, keeps the audience at a similar distance, where the viewer becomes a discriminating observer of these randomly occurring events.  The movie ends with an earthquake, a cataclysm of nature, where the film doesn’t really resolve anything, as life goes on afterwards, much as it did before, with Annie Ross singing over the closing credits, while a camera hovers over a map of Los Angeles, “I’m a Prisoner of Life” Annie Ross and the Low Note Quintet - Prisoner of Life / I'm Gonna Go Fishin' [from Short Cuts] (4:20).  What’s particularly noticeable about Altman’s film is how ordinary the characters are, where they are all meant to be the people next door, where the most ordinary mundane things become the important thread that holds them together, actually becoming the defining tissue in their lives, where economic circumstances play into this, as people behave differently in different economic strata.  Working class people live claustrophobic lives on top of one another, where there is no space, as they rarely get a day off or have a vacation, like a fishing trip that might only happen once a year, while the wealthy couple lives with the entire panorama of Los Angeles visible through the smog out their backyard, where there is an infinite amount of space that literally consumes this couple who are suffocating in a relationship defined by emotional distance.  Coming after the critical and financial success of The Player (1992), a scathing satire on the Hollywood movie itself, this allowed Altman a chance at the kind of film he wanted to make, returning to the level of power directors had in the 70’s, after the fall of the studios, where Altman acknowledges for that string of 8 pictures from MASH (1970) to Nashville (1975), he made exactly the movies he wanted to make with no outside interference.  While the 80’s were spent filming plays by prominent dramatists, these films were intelligent adaptations of literary works, as Altman has once again stamped his own unique vision from contemporary literature, resurrecting his career by masterfully creating order out of chaos, where SHORT CUTS is a brilliantly executed return to form. 

Raymond Carver died all too early, at age 50, of lung cancer in 1988, where the appeal of Carver's stories lies in their raw, spare truthfulness, creating a series of random occurrences not necessarily leading anywhere or culminating in a single event, where there is no ultimate resolution or acts of redemption, as both Altman and Carver have a dark view of the world where the banal becomes horrible and inexplicable.  Not really providing a beginning or end, but just the middle of the stories, this film evokes a ferocity of spirit by creating a symphonic accumulation of small things, where these eventually are the things that matter, small details of life that seem so absurd at times, but they make up bigger parts, where characters have a tragicomic response to it all.  A film that is all about behavior, that can be viewed as a series of betrayals, with people refusing to acknowledge one another as individuals, seen instead as objects that can be abused, often fed by illusions, alcoholism, or self-doubt, leading to a false sense of security, where underneath these isolated characters is an erosion of trust, where relationships are deteriorating from self-interest and personal greed.  According to Altman, “This is more complicated than either Nashville or A Wedding, even though it has less characters than A Wedding because A Wedding was all concerned about the same event, where everyone was really related to someone else.  In this film they don’t necessarily relate to one another.”  The cellist and jazz singer are both Altman inventions, musicians that can only truly express themselves through their artistry, as it’s an extension of who they are, where they personify the artist pouring their heart out through another medium, representing both Carver and Altman.  The Finnegans are the kind of people where bad things don’t happen to them, as they have a good job, a big home, an overprotected child, where they built a kind of life structured around not allowing anything to go wrong, and then their kid gets hit by a car, where they’re looking for answers, bewildered and confused, asking what did they do wrong?  And, of course, there isn’t anything they did wrong, it just happened, leading them to a place where there are no answers.  Jack Lemmon’s personal confession is a 9-minute monologue, where Altman had to figure out a way to make it interesting, to hold the audience, so the camera just holds a close up on his face and lets Jack work the magic, where the real interest is the soul of the character.  You could dress it up and try to make it more visually interesting, but truth can stand on its own and is stronger when stripped down to its bare essentials, beautifully expressed by Annie Ross’s unvarnished pain and anger in “To Hell with Love” annie ross-to hell with love - YouTube (7:10). 

And finally, it has been pointed out by others, namely Robert Kolker in A Cinema of Loneliness, that the characters in SHORT CUTS suggest an influence beyond Raymond Carver, where they seem frozen in time, ingrained with a spirit of human despair, forced to look into the mirror at their own self-inflicted pain, stuck in a kind of prison, much like the visual influence of painter Edward Hopper, where his paintings, most especially Night Hawks (6,000 × 3,274 pixels), portraying people sitting in a downtown diner at night, and one of the most recognizable paintings in American art, have been copied by countless filmmakers, but perhaps no one “but Altman, perhaps unconsciously, has captured, without imitation, the loss and diminishment of personality that so many of Hopper’s paintings connote:  lives negated by depression and loneliness.”  According to the writings of Mark Strand in his book Hopper, 1994:

Within the question of how much the scenes in Hopper are influenced by an imprisoning, or at least a limiting, dark is the issue of our temporal arrangements—what do we do with time and what does time do to us?...Hopper’s people…are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company, with no clear place to go, no future.  

[Hopper’s paintings] are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them.  The tone but not the content.  The implication but not the evidence.  They are saturated with suggestion.  The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narrative of what came before.  They engage us when the idea of passage cannot be far from our minds…Our time with the painting must include—if we are self-aware—what the painting reveals about the nature of continuousness.  Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness.  They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of life lived as by the time before life and time after.  The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point. 


  1. Your Altman series is a particularly wonderful read. Short Cuts belongs to the most engrossing cinema going experiences of my life. I would claim that it is the "perfect" movie: I can't imagine that Altman could have made better choices at any point of the film. I don't want to take anything away from The Player, but Short Cuts is film making on a different level, making it in my opinion Altman's greatest gift to movie goers alongside The Long Goodbye. Having seen Short Cuts and Nashville a few days apart, I find that, as impressive as Nashville is, in Short Cuts Altman brings many ideas to a conclusion which were still half-baked in Nashville. Mind you, Short Cuts is bound to lose a mass of its momentum when removed from the silver screen.

  2. I like Short Cuts slightly better than The Player because all of the characters are so well developed, with each telling a unique story, where what's going on under the surface is particularly telling. Looking back at Altman again, especially within the light of what we see today at the movies, has been nothing short of revelatory.