Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Newline Home Video VHS
The title of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts appears and dissolves in a simple fashion: it shatters, and its pieces spread outward until its letters are indiscernible. It is an appropriate introduction to the film. Like shards of a broken pane of glass, individual scenes in Short Cuts do little to resemble their cumulative whole. What the film upholds is the immediate connection between its individual pieces. Short Cuts is deliberately fragmentary, laudable for its individual scenes and even more so for their cohesion.
Robert Altman, a reputed renegade director since M*A*S*H, films in long takes and in common setups. The opening mis-en-scene in The Player displays his frequented tactic, as the members of a bustling film studio arrive and converse in their multitude, all in an unbroken shot. Though Short Cuts contains no single scene to rival the technical prowess displayed formerly in The Player, Altman’s mis-en-scene is more appropriate in Short Cuts. Several long takes find characters from different stories, united only in terms of peripheral composition. It forwards a notion of simultaneity crucial to the film; it is a composite portrait of several lives at once.
The film is based upon a handful of short stories penned by minimalist author Raymond Carver. Much like Altman, the writer possesses a renegade style and lack of convention. Many of Carver’s works are stubbornly ambiguous. His vocabulary is routinely simplified, yet individual sentences — in their simplicity — are poetic and evocative. Carver’s text is intact and unedited in much of Short Cuts, to the benefit of the film, though his short stories are less encapsulated in dilution (admittedly, a disservice to the source text). Dilution, however, may be credited as a strength of Short Cuts. The combination allows the characters to interlock, and to display an emotional range unavailable in a single Carver story. As several have pointedly announced, Short Cuts is less a collection of Carver short stories than it is an Altman film.
The film is cohered by a medfly quarantine. The title credits are scored with the thumping of helicopter blades that signal a cloud of non-toxic poison that will reduce the pests, across all of Los Angeles. We see select characters and stories, and individual reactions to the quarantine. It has little narrative significance, and is a method of funneling into the expansive narrative (the film’s ending is a similarly cohesive gesture — an earthquake — and is significant insofar that it is uniquely Californian).
Several scenes find characters from different stories, and Altman’s direction of such scenes is magnificent. Consider a simple one, in which a woman, dressed as a clown, enters a bakery. The camera pans back-and-forth repeatedly, as others, from other stories, enter, conduct business, and exit. The shot is unbroken, and we watch as these characters — who share no relationship — pass the whim of each other in ignorance. The scene has a rhythm, as each pan lands perfectly upon a moving character who will lead the view in another direction. Altman’s staging has a distinct ingenuity.
Although Short Cuts’ individual threads may coax discussion (I recommend the source texts highly), it is their combination that enables multiple perspectives. By combining Carver stories and allowing them to contrast, mimic, and even contradict each other, Altman creates a forum for relative truth. For example, the aforementioned baker is recruited to design a cake for the birthday of a young boy. The date passes, the cake is never picked up, and the baker, annoyed, phones the woman who requested his work and harasses her. His annoyance is justified, in that the lack of reciprocation results in his loss. He does not know that the boy has died.
This display of truth is available exclusively to the viewer in every minute of the film. One story has a policeman whose time is filled with little responsibility (he scores a woman’s number in a routine pull-over). Another has a criminal. We see as characters’ actions are dictated by bias and lack of trust. These are crooks and drunks, among whom infidelity and deceit is common. We are omniscient in their world, and see their constant inability to locate an ultimate truth.
Consider the thread that finds Jerry, a pool cleaner, and his wife Lois, a phone-sex mistress. She has explicit conversations in the presence of her two children, changing diapers and cleaning house, punctuating her routine with staged orgasms. Jerry confronts the fact that her explicit dialogue — delivered without concern in front of her children — is absent in their privacy. It is an episode with both a comic and depressed perspective. There is a deeper irony, as the relationship has fidelity and others in the film do not.
In whole, Short Cuts is a complete variety of action, complimented by a potent source. It may not be regarded as Robert Altman’s best film (a title continually given to Nashville), though it is a signature display of his talent.