Short Cuts March 31, 2016
Once October rolls around it will have been four years since the first time I saw Short Cuts. It was during a party my parents had planned for weeks, the kind where a bunch of middle-aged friends get together and talk about their most prevalent life problems, their most recent professional successes, over fine wine and aged cheese.
Naturally, a fifteen-year-old with nothing better to do on a lazy weekend afternoon hardly has a place in that kind of setting, and so, for its duration, I locked myself in my bedroom and took to my silken sheets, the best way to pass the time being the viewing of Short Cuts. I played it on the ancient family laptop that had a bad habit of causing perfectly healthy DVDs to skip at the worst of moments; on that machine’s most vindictive days, remote controls would all but temporarily disappear.
Predictably, the three-hour, seven-minute-long Short Cuts did skip and did, of course, tuck away its remote controls during times I’d prefer it wouldn’t (a family friend came upstairs to visit me around the period during which Julianne Moore gives her infamous pantsless monologue).
But in those mostly uninterrupted three hours of viewing did my perception of film change shape. A mind that once figured that movies with a slice-of-life proclivity were good enough, I had no idea that a film as epic, as astronomical, as unnervingly real as Short Cuts, could possibly exist.
In an art form that prefers to have its greatest of works last around ninety minutes, to detail the lives of two or three characters at a time, to have a single, easy-to-follow plot, Short Cuts, lasting about as long as War and Peace, fleshing out some twenty-two equally main characters, and intersecting its many stories with naturalistic ease, was something ethereal.
How could Robert Altman, one of the great American directors (Nashville, The Player), juggle so many characters, so many storylines, and yet make them all feel as immediate as the other? How could all these big stars (some established, some to be established) leap off their untouchable pedestals and recreate themselves as people as real as you or me? How could a movie three hours in length not seem quite long enough? How could it be cinematically possible to go from a hysterically funny scene to briskly turn to a devastatingly melancholy one and still ring as cohesive?
The screenplay, co-written by Altman and Frank Barhydt, is an adaptation of nine short stories and a poem by prolific writer Raymond Carver, whose minimalist prose and ability to draw lifelike characters within the context of a short story rendered him as a revivalist of the form in his heyday. Unfamiliar with his work and more in touch with what surrounds his name on Wikipedia, Short Cuts only lifts his characters, not his settings (switched from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles) or the way the individuals on display are inevitably related. The film could be an assemblage of vignettes designed to arrive one after the other, but Altman, an auteur whose liking of the cliché that Everything Is Connected, does the impossible and links all twenty-two of its main characters with daisy chain astonishment.
Whether one is a neighbor of the other or if one is a cop stopping another character by chance for driving too slowly, the people of Short Cuts, regardless of class or race, compare in the ways that they’re all trying to dig themselves out of gaping holes of discontent, though individual intensity, along with our reactions to them, ranges.
Judge their everyday hardships for yourself. We are voyeurs to the lives of Ann and Howard Finnigan (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison), a well-off married couple (he’s a TV newscaster) whose banal but comfy existence is shattered when their son (Zane Cassidy) is hit by a car. Because he gets up and seems fine, and because he won’t take any help since his parents told him never to talk to strangers, the driver, Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin), hesitantly departs the scene — at least she didn’t kill him. Her daughter (Lili Taylor) is best friends with Lois Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a phone-sex operator unwittingly putting her marriage on the rocks because her husband (Chris Penn) is jealous that she never talks to him that way during sex.
Then there’s Sherri and Gene Shepard (Madeleine Stowe and Tim Robbins), whose marriage is kind of shitty but somehow manageable. Though she’s aware that her husband, a motorcycle cop, cheats on her regularly (his current conquest is an equally morally unstable married woman played by Frances McDormand), she thinks his lies are hilariously fun to artificially buy.
Her sister, Marian (Julianne Moore), a bourgeois painter and her confidant, plays wife to husband Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), a doctor, but most of the intimacy that used to live between them has given way to distrust. It might all come to a head during a dinner party they politely invite Claire and Stuart Kane (Anne Archer and Fred Ward) to, who themselves are arguing because he and his friends went fishing for a weekend and didn’t let the dead body they discovered in their stream deter their fun until the Sunday they got back home.
Other characters include Paul Finnigan (Jack Lemmon), Howard’s father who decides to come for a hospital visit only to talk about himself, Zoe and Tess Trainer (Annie Ross and Lori Singer), a mother-daughter pair whose relationship is deterred by mom’s fondness for liquor, Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), the vengeful husband of Gene’s mistress, and Earl (Tom Waits), Doreen’s husband who might be irreplaceably flawless if he wasn't so dependent on the bottle to get by.
Some of these stories are more engaging than others, but none of them ever feel unnecessary. Like life itself, you have people you’d like to spend time with and people you’d prefer to stay away from, and, being the unfiltered reflection of everyday mundanity that it is, you’ve got to take the good with the bad and see where they all end up. But in totality, there isn’t a film quite like Short Cuts, unless you go down Robert Altman’s filmography and start cherry-picking. With its preeminent use of cross-talking for the sake of verisimilitude, and for the way it’s sad, or funny, in ways relatively down-to-earth, we might as well consider ourselves to be watching a documentary.
Because that’s what it feels like — Short Cuts doesn’t so much regard itself as a movie as it does pass itself along as a collection of connected, average lives, riveting to watch because these people aren’t so different from us, our neighbors, our friends, our family, our enemies. We’ve all felt a desire to break down closed doors and see what goes on in the lives of those we know, those we know of, and the film very well might be a close enough representation.
And since Altman pulls off that mightily difficult undertaking, his actors are faultless, too. Everything about the ensemble is just about right, not appearing in roles but disappearing into people that might not be so much different from themselves (on a level of humanity, that is). MacDowell and Davison are heartbreakingly emotive as people who once had it all but are rapidly losing what made their existence something special. Stowe and Robbins play house with convincing dysfunction, and Tomlin and Waits are touching as a middle-aged couple who are able to get by with little, able to keep their love alive after years together.
I love Leigh as the phone-sex operator, delivering dirty lines with passion as she performs blasé tasks like changing her baby’s diapers and making dinner, and I love Lemmon’s brief performance as an absent father so distinctly aware of his failures as a guardian that he can’t help but ignore the traumas in front of him and make everything about his own past mistakes.
But perhaps the finest moment in Short Cuts is the climactic fight scene between Ralph and Marian, which is as tense and explosive as it is scrupulously humorous. The scene, taking place shortly before their sure-to-be-awkward dinner with the Kanes, depicts Ralph confronting Marian about a past infidelity. Just as things are about to get raging, Marian spills white wine all over her skirt, which she was planning to wear for the party. She rips it off and attempts to wash it, completely nude from the waist down, having to still fight for herself as things get increasingly hostile.
Marian’s nakedness is both surreally funny and representative of the way all affinity has left the marriage; so well does this couple know each other that such physical display is hardly titillating — Ralph is much more content screaming at his wife than paying attention to her nether regions. The scene is bizarre, intense, hilarious, but also expertly performed; is there a more fearless actress working today than Moore (whose career began the process of kicking off because of this performance), and is there an actor that could play Ralph with the same believable furiousness? The actors are effortlessly able to evoke a feeling of a marriage gone stale, and it’s one of the best conversations Altman has ever written.
But Short Cuts is among the best films Altman has ever made, a display of his accessible and immediate eccentricities. Even those not as in love with it as I am cannot pass by its brilliance without highly regarding the way Altman so easily makes the complicated simple and oftentimes intimate. It’s a skillfully performed film written and directed with the finesse of a virtuoso. Altman’s career only contains a few unmistakable masterpieces, the rest mostly good but nevertheless containing more than a couple clunkers. But Short Cuts is one of his rare masterstrokes, sure to be considered his magnum opus if Nashville didn’t exist. Movies like this are what keep the art of cinema alive — childlike wonder is not an unnatural reaction to have in the face of its splendor. A+