Being an ardent fan of director Robert Altman’s, having enjoyed his unique library of films for years, I can say that Short Cuts is one of the few films of his I could never bring myself to watch. It seems that for ages, I’ve been avoiding the film for reasons which even after now having seen it, I am still unable to pinpoint. Whatever those reasons may be, I’m glad I overcame them and allowed myself to experience Altman’s atypical view of a Los Angeles where complicated people lead lives which are both simultaneously normal and endlessly unconventional.
Altman adapted this collection of short stories from American writer Raymond Carver dealing with the intimate lives of a group of various L.A. denizens as they muddle through life as they know it in the city of angels. Among the collection of souls encountered is a doctor (Matthew Modine) unable to connect with his artist wife (Julianne Moore), a waitress (Lily Tomlin) struggling to deal with her alcoholic boyfriend (Tom Waits) and a housewife (Andie MacDowell) stricken with grief after her son falls into a coma following a car accident, among many others.
What sticks out immediately when watching Short Cuts is how the film is a deep and extended view of life in L.A. There isn’t much in the way of showbiz commentary in the film since Altman had so brilliantly made his statement on the movie industry in the previous year’s The Player. Instead, Short Cuts focuses on the ordinary people leading seemingly standard lives with offbeat elements. It’s especially both shocking and interesting to see how many of the character’s “L.A.” professions work in tandem with their normal lives. Robert Downey Jr. as a make-up artist who spends his nights applying his trade to his girlfriend (Lili Taylor) by painting her as a murder victim and then taking photos of her is a prime example. Likewise, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s stay-at-home mom of three is also a phone-sex operator and is often seen feeding her toddler while moaning over the phone to a client. Shocking to us? Absolutely. For them however, it’s simply another day in the life.
At the same time, virtually all of the stories within Short Cuts offer up a portrait of life as seen from anywhere and everywhere. This is because at the root of it, everyone in the film is both normal (to varying degrees) and complicated. There’s instant relatability when seeing Moore and Modine awkwardly wrestle over inviting a couple they’ve just met (Anne Archer and Fred Ward) at a concert over to their house for dinner. Meanwhile, there’s seering devastation at watching a child being hit by a car a mere two days before his birthday party, which is coupled with an unexpected sympathy for the driver. L.A. setting or not, Short Cuts proves itself to be a film about connection and the utterly transcendent way that the most random acts and events stir and awaken the utmost essential of human emotions.
The one common thread between all of Altman’s films was how he was able to pull the best from every actor he cast simply by tossing aside the film’s script and letting them run wild, shaping their own characters in the process. As a result, the director was able to well utilize Chris Penn’s frustrated pool man and the unhinged quality lurking within Lyle Lovett’s baker. While each member of the sprawling ensemble brings true poetry to their roles, its Jack Lemmon as an absentee father now trying to re-enter his news anchor son’s (Bruce Davidson) life who nearly steals the whole affair by being at his most quietly intense.
Very rarely has a melding of two such distinct artists like Carver and Altman yielded such explosive and compelling results they way it does in Short Cuts. I recall the latter once commenting how he made what he liked to call “essay films,” in which he explored certain pockets of society with specific notions attached and dissected them by chronicling the ways in which they functioned. With Short Cuts, Altman offers up a quintessential example of that by illustrating what it means to exist in Los Angeles and the different shades of being a Los Angelino. The result is both immediately relatable and fascinatingly unique as Short Cuts so perfectly and eloquently documents the longing, the searching, the aimlessness and the listlessness of not just Los Angeles, but life in general.
Besides the handful of marketing materials, deleted scenes and other features, the extras on the release of Short Cuts are something of a treasure trove for fans of the film. There are two hour-long features on Carver (one an audio interview, the other a PBS documentary) where the author’s works and life are explored. There’s also an hour and a half-long vintage documentary on the making of the film, as well as a one-on-one conversation between Altman and star Tim Robbins from 2004 where the two reflect on the making of the film.
Never falling short in pathos or humor, Short Cuts is incredibly heartbreaking, hilarious and insightful all at once and in that wonderfully subtle Altman way.
Short Cuts is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.