Short Cuts

Short Cuts
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman & Frank Barhydt (based on the writings of Raymond Carver)
Stars: Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1993
Country: U.S.
Short Cuts DVD
Short CutsRaymond Carver summed up the power of his own writing when he said, “It’s possible to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow these things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power.”

Thus, it seems almost destiny that Robert Altman, whom Pauline Kael once described as “the most atmospheric of directors,” would be the filmmaker to adapt Carver’s work to the screen. After all, Altman’s invigorating long takes, simple compositions, and subtle attention to detail are the cinematic equivalent of Carver’s unadorned, but deeply effective prose. Both men are fascinated by the depths of humanity—the strangeness behind the banality, as some have put it—and Short Cuts represents a triumph of one artist’s voice speaking through another’s.

Altman and coscreenwriter Frank Barhydt (Quintet) took nine of Carver’s short stories and one of his poems and wove them together into a continuous story with no real beginning, middle, or end. Rather, it is truly a slice of life divided up among the interlocking actions of 22 characters. Altman and Barhydt made the decision to relocate the story from the working-class Northwestern settings Carver favored to the suburbs of Los Angeles, a move that angered many Carver fans, but makes sense within the film’s worldview. By setting it in Los Angeles, Altman was able to expand Carver’s characters and situations outside of a fairly restricted milieu and into a grand melting pot. The size and scope of Los Angeles--not just as a city, but as an idea--heightens the film’s sense of randomness and fate, which is what so many of Carver’s stories were about.

Norman Mailer suggested that Short Cuts is the novel that Carver never wrote, and it’s an apt description of the film because it takes bits and pieces of Carver’s work—beautiful and penetrating in their own right—and stitches them together into something even more meaningful. The film’s triumph is the way Altman forges the connections among the stories, interweaving them in ways that accentuate Carver’s themes about the randomness of life and the power of seemingly inconsequential everyday moments.

If there is a binding theme that connects the interwoven stories, it is that of death. The film begins with helicopters spraying Los Angeles with chemicals to control a medfly infestation, immediately establishing the fragility of life in all its various forms (a television news program that provides the film’s first spoken words is eerily prescient in mentioning both “international terrorists” and “Iraq,” harbingers of death that were as prominent in people’s minds in 1993 as they are today).

Most of the stories then hinge on some form of violence, latent or explicit. There is the couple (Andie McDowell and Bruce Davison) whose son is hit by a car and lies comatose in a hospital, possibly on the verge of death. Their neighbors are an aging jazz diva (Annie Ross) and her possibly suicidal daughter (Lori Singer) who is a classically trained cellist. Ross and Singer’s characters are the only ones who were invented whole-cloth for the film, and their music--the discordant conflict between bluesy jazz and classical--is the film’s nervous system, creating aural links from one story to the next.

The driver who hit the boy (Lily Tomlin) is a blue-collar waitress having problems with her alcoholic husband (Tom Waits), and she is blessedly (or terribly) unaware of the severity of her actions because the boy got up and walked home, succumbing to his head injury only later. Meanwhile, the waitress’s daughter (Lili Taylor) is married to a special effects make-up artist (Robert Downey, Jr.) whose job is to create for the camera the illusion of death, taken to a blackly comedic extreme when he uses his wife as a practice model for recreating a moment of domestic abuse.

Death also cuts through the story of a man (Fred Ward) who goes fishing with a couple of buddies (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis) and finds a girl’s corpse floating in the river. Their decision to wait several days to alert the authorities lest their fishing trip be ruined distresses his wife (Anne Archer), who works as a clown at birthday parties and, yes, the children’s ward at the hospital. Ward and Archer are connected to another couple, a doctor (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife (Julianne Moore), who they met at a symphony and are scheduled to have dinner together, although they obviously come from different social strata and have little in common. Furthermore, Modine’s doctor is the one in charge of caring for McDowell and Davison’s injured son.

Madeline Stowe plays the sister of Julianne Moore’s character. Stowe is married to a egotistical, pathologically lying police officer (Tim Robbins), whose very presence in a film made so close on the heels of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent L.A. riots carried an inevitable suggestion of institutionalized violence, even though Robbins abuses his authority status mainly to pick up women and get rid of the family dog he hates so much.

Most disturbing, though, is a pool cleaner played by Chris Penn, whose wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a phone sex worker who plies desperate men with dirty talk while nonchalantly changing her baby’s diapers or picking at her toes. The disconnect between the wife’s sexually explicit profession and the banality of the household chores she takes care of while working the phone is a blatant metonym for Carver and Altman’s fascination with the difference between appearance and reality. This is then reflected in Penn’s character, who seems fairly placid on the surface, but whose inner fury is constantly being brought to a boil, one that will eventually blow up in the worst possible way.

Despite the film’s attention to the constant presence of death in life, that is hardly a summation of what Short Cuts is about, and part of its power and what makes it memorable is that different people will walk away from it with different senses of what it’s “about.” Altman has described Carver’s work as being composed not of stories, but of “occurrences,” and in Short Cuts he pays his greatest tribute to Carver not by being slavishly devoted to the source material, but by assembling Carver’s occurrences into a meaningful mosaic without forcing too much order on them. There is no rigid structure holding them up, and while the film does build to a violent climax of sorts, it doesn’t force any tidy conclusions or even grand statements about what it all means. Rather, Altman is content to let the film represent life in all its messy, inexplicable wonder—full of moments of beauty and tragedy, consequence and silliness.

Short Cuts Criterion Collection Directed-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby 2.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video interview with Robert Altman and Tim Robbins
  • Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country making-of documentary
  • To Write and Keep Kind PBS documentary on Raymond Carver
  • Excerpt from BBC television’s Moving Pictures tracing the development of the screenplay
  • 1983 audio interview with Raymond Carver
  • Original demo recordings of the Doc Pomus/Mac Rebennack songs, performed by Dr. John
  • Deleted scenes
  • Poster gallery
  • Two theatrical trailers
  • Six TV spots
  • Companion book of Raymond Carver short stories
  • Essay by film critic Michael Wilmington
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateNovember 16, 2004

    The new anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc, which was supervised by editor Geraldine Peroni and approved by Robert Altman, was made from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original negative. The colors on this transfer are particularly bold, although the image itself seems slightly soft. This may be because it was shot in Super35, which doesn’t allow for quite the same resolution as true CinemaScope once it’s cropped down to 2.35:1. Nevertheless, the image has good detail and a warm, filmlike appearance. The MTI Digital Restoration System was used to clean up the image (although, since the film is only 11 years old, I’d like to think it wasn’t too dirty and scratched up to begin with).

    The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original 6-track magnetic audio master and sounds great. The combination of jazz and classical music comes across beautifully. The disc also features an isolated music track.

    Most of the supplements in this two-disc set were ported over from the 1994 Criterion laser disc. These include two brief deleted scenes and an extended, alternate version of the scene between Andie McDowell, Bruce Davison, and Lyle Lovett in the bakery. Also from the laser disc are original demo recordings of the songs used in the film, as well as the 90-minute documentary Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country, an in-depth look at the making of the film that includes extensive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with virtually everyone involved in the film in front of and behind the camera. The section on marketing is particularly instructive in how difficult it was to sell the film, as it shows literally dozens of poster designs, two theatrical trailers, and six TV spots, all of which are completely different. New to the DVD is a videotaped conversation between Altman and Tim Robbins and an excerpt from the BBC television program Moving Pictures about the film. There is also more supplementary material on Raymond Carver, including an hour-long audio interview with the author conducted in 1983 and a PBS documentary on his life titled To Write and Keep Kind. One of the nicest touches of this DVD is that it is packaged with a nicely designed softback book of the nine stories and one poem that were adapted to make the film. The laser disc set also included these stories, but they were CAV supplements on the discs themselves, so you had to read them on your TV screen, which is sometimes hard on the eyes.

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Fine Line Features and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

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