Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 06 December 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
On the occasion of The Criterion Collection’s recent release on DVD of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, I watched the film for the first time in nearly ten years. It was the first time I have seen it, in fact, since Criterion released it the first time, on laserdisc. Where 1992’s The Player marked Altman’s return to commercially viable filmmaking, 1993’s follow-up, Short Cuts—now justifiably renowned—was considered Altman’s return as a filmmaker of the first order. That is not to say that Altman’s prior work such as Vincent and Theo and Tanner ‘88 was of poor quality, but it failed to live up to the high standards Altman had set for himself with his extraordinary films of the 1970s. Short Cuts is unlike any other film Altman had made before (though it bears some superficial similarity to 1975’s Nashville), and I daresay he will never make another film quite as ambitious again.
The film is based on nine stories and one prose poem by the late Raymond Carver, though most of the finer details and plot points of Carver’s works are bent, twisted, or transmuted through the process of adaptation. Rather than conducting an exercise in slavish devotion to the written word, Altman (and his co-scenarist, Frank Barhydt) boiled the tone and spirit of Carver’s stories down, reconstituted it with his own sense of story and character, and served up a concoction that is true to the ideals of both artists. A couple of the stories, particularly the tragic tale of a couple whose young son is hit by a car, make the transition from page to screen largely intact. Others, such as the poem, “Lemonade,” provide the basis for newly-invented characters whose resemblance to their literary origins is only passing. The end result is something wholly different from what one would experience just by reading the works that provide the basis for the film (which are nicely included with the Criterion DVD in an accompanying book). Altman connects the twenty-two main characters through chance and random events, but the effect is not like a Dickensian reveal that exposes a preposterous familial relationship or a diabolical, previously unknown association. The characters’ paths cross as they would in everyday life: one waits behind another in a bakery, another cleans the neighbor’s pool.
Of the nearly two-dozen characters in the film, possibly one or two are likeable. Most of the rest of them are rotten, irresponsible, petty, emotionally feeble, immature fuck-ups. Which is to say that they are recognizably human. They are not the kind of people one usually goes to the movies to see—plucky archetypes with one significant flaw who, through trials requiring courage and faith, overcome obstacles to learn valuable life lessons. No one here learns any lessons (except maybe the hard kind) in Altman’s film, and no one winds up a better person at the end of the film than they were at the beginning. In fact, most of the characters begin the film with shitty lives that only get shittier as the movie progresses. This can make Short Cuts a very difficult film to watch, one that requires a great deal of patience to handle both the running time and the creeping feeling that any one of these characters could be you, but Altman—in this film and in others—rewards patience with the pleasure of watching a master filmmaker at work.
Altmans’ primary tools in Short Cuts, apart from his brilliant cast, are the zoom lens and his late, trusted editor, Geraldine Peroni. Altman uses the zoom lens as a compositional tool: instead of shooting action from several angles and cutting between actors and points of view or actors and objects of interest, Altman stages each scene in a single master shot and reframes every shot by following the movements of the actors or by zooming in and out on areas of importance within the shot. It was not a new technique in 1993 (similar use of the zoom lens can even be found in a couple of scenes in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 musical, Love Me Tonight), nor was it a new technique to Altman, who had used it to good effect in certain of his films of the 1970s. In this case, however, Altman uses it as the primary set-up for every shot, cutting away only when the action demands it. The technique frees the actors to move about the set as a person would in their normal surroundings, situating their performance in a more authentic context. Characters do things or go places because it is what their character would do, not because the next camera set-up demands it. And because of the naturalness of the scenes and the great talent of the film’s editor, the characters’ stories connect and flow with ease and seamless precision.
Geraldine Peroni was Altman’s editor from Vincent and Theo to The Company. Before that, she was an assistant editor to the masterful Thelma Schoonmaker, a waitress, a cab driver, and a prospective firefighter. Whether it was an innate ability or one learned from forced listening to people’s chatter and knowing just when to tune them out, Peroni had a great talent for allowing a scene to last just as long as it needed to last and no more. Her talent was an enormous asset to Altman, whose films at their worst can be self-indulgent and overly slack. As is obvious from the films she cut for Altman, Peroni had no qualms about trimming a scene when it had reached its logical end or about denying an actor the overextension of his ego. Without Peroni, Short Cuts could very easily have been a mess and could have sent Altman right back into the television and filmed play ghetto from which he had recently emerged with The Player.
Because of the characters, I can’t say that I exactly like Short Cuts, but because of the vibrant contributions of its cast and crew, I can’t deny that it is a truly great film. Of course, conundrums like this are what Altman specializes in and are what make his movies continually worth revisiting and worth looking forward to. At nearly eighty years of age, he is still working at the pace of filmmakers half his age and, like the best of them, one never gets the sense that his career is in decline.