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Non-Review Review: Short Cuts

Short Cuts is perhaps “the” big defining ensemble drama. Even those who haven’t seen it are familiar with Robert Altman’s epic three-hour twenty-two-character crisscrossing drama about life modern Los Angeles. It’s bold, ambitious and challenging. Personally, I prefer Altman’s skewering the studio system in The Player, there’s no denying that this big drama has its charms.

Altman casts a long shadow...

About halfway through the film, one character remarks that she hates people from Los Angeles. “All they do is snort coke and talk,” she moans of several other members of the large and impressive ensemble cast. Being honest, it would seem that Altman agrees with her. On watching the film, featuring an expansive cast, the vast majority of them are thoroughly unlikable people. They’re liars, frauds and cheats – either to themselves or to others. In fact, the only characters who seem to garner any sympathy are Howard and Anne Finnigan – if only because they play the parents to a wounded little boy.

However, despite the fact that they aren’t nice people, they are interesting. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that Robert Altman, working from the stories of Raymond Carver, was able to manage a cast this expansive and develop them all so skilfully. It’s also stunning that, despite the size and scale of the production, each of the stories clicks. Writing an ensemble piece is tough – on need only consider some of the more recent efforts. It’s about balancing. The stories have to be the right size and just the right amount of compelling. If they’re too interesting, we end up anxiously waiting for the next snippet, breezing over the other segments as “padding.” If they’re too boring… well, they’re just taking up room.

When life gives you Lemmon...

The movie is long. And, to be honest, it feels long. Still, it’s the kind of movie that you make time for, that you clear your schedule a space in your schedule to watch. It’s hard to make three hours breeze by, and Altman does do that. He lets the stories expand and enfold on their own terms. It is, in my opinion, the best way to do it – everyone is afforded space, even though that means it’s a longer and slightly more exhausting movie. However, it’s not really a complaint – just an observation.

Watching it today, it’s hard to argue that Altman’s collection of stories hasn’t somehow become even more relevant in the years since. We live in what might be deemed “the Facebook age”, the era of interconnectivity, where the world is closer together than it ever was before… and yet we’re more listed and disconnected than we ever have been. We can pass the people important to us in the street, and we’d never know.

No clowning around...

Similarly, we see the impact that these random strangers have on each other’s lives, but they seldom interact directly. One character cleans the pool of another couple. Several characters intersect at a bakery without realising. On a fishing trip, one character and his mates overlap with another couple at a small country diner. Doreen hits a young boy in her car. He gets back up again and walks home. “He wasn’t hurt,” Doreen insists as she recounts the story to anyone who will listen. However, she doesn’t know what happened after the child went home to his parents – how could she?

The phone serves to connect people. One imagines, were Altman working today, he’d replace it with the internet. Lois Kaiser runs a phone sex hotline which allows her to get more intimate with strangers than she does with her own husband (“how come you never talk me like that?” he asks). When a birthday cake isn’t collected, a baker makes threatening phone calls to the house – threats he would never dare to make in person. Indeed, it’s his disengagement from the family which makes it possible for him to be so “insensitive.” He doesn’t know the full story of that uncollected birthday cake – how could he?

Short cuts indeed...

The problem, Altman suggests, is that this densely knitted web allows and encourages us to remain disengaged. When Doreen tells her husband she hit a kid with her car, his response is to wonder if anybody saw. “I just don’t want to get sued,” he remarks, ending the conversation in the matter. Stuart Caine and his fishing buddies find the body of a raped and murdered woman in the river. “What we gonna do about you-know what?” he asks his buddies. “Wanna take another picture?” is the only response he gets. His wife is shocked that Stuart and his mates left the girl there until they’d finished their weekend of fishing. “You left her in the water?” she demands.

The movie is populated with the lies and self-delusions that we sell to ourselves in order to make getting by just a little bit easier. Gene Shepard, an adulterous police officer, is king of this – but all characters do it to some extent or another. Explaining his absences to his wife (who has long since realised his nature), Gene spouts nonsense about “crack kids” and warns here than he has “compromised your safety and the children’s safety” by telling them. She laughs to herself at some of these excuses, but he keeps using them – if only for himself.

I don't think it's been shorts they've been drinking...

What’s especially fascinated about this self-delusion among the characters is the way that it manifests as hypocritical behaviour around their children. Gene doesn’t want his mistress’ child to see him (“kids shouldn’t see this sort of thing”) and is reluctant to even name drugs in front of his own children (“kids on C-R-A-C-K”), but doesn’t mind them running around with toy guns or hearing him swear. The Kaiser’s children listen to their mother on a phone sex hotline all day, but their father is able to use smoking as an excuse to slip off (his friend remarks on “discretion around the little ones”). After all, it’s the kids who will really suffer from this.

Altman brings his usual naturalist style to the film. In particular, his trademark overlapping dialogue pops up repeatedly – two sets of characters holding two distinct sets of conversations at the same time at the same place. His approach lends an even more voyeuristic feeling to the film. “Don’t snoop,” Honey Bush remarks to her husband as they feed their neighbours’ fish – but it feels like we are. Much like Ralph wandering in on his sister-in-law Sherri modelling nude for his wife Marian, we repeatedly stumble across characters naked. Not “naked” in the Hollywood sense, where everybody’s always wearing a towel or using an L-shaped bed sheet – I mean really naked, like people generally aren’t allowed to be in big films like this.

She's not as 'andy as one might think...

It’s interesting to hear Marian, an artist, offer some justification of the director’s style. Discussing how she was taught to paint using objects like stones and twigs rather than brushes, she says that they did it that way “to get you to feel.” There’s definitely a feeling that Altman’s preference for a more natural and organic approach to film allows him to forge a purer emotional connection with the audience. I don’t think that – even in a three hour film – all these characters would feel as real without Altman’s touch.

The director is dealing with a powerhouse cast here. Some are superb (including Tim Robbins and Lily Tomlin, among others). Despite these strong performances, Jack Lemmon almost steals the film with a monologue at the half-way point, in which he explains that he has lived the sort of lives that many of the people in this film do – and he’s still lying to himself about it, after a fashion (“I didn’t want to disappoint her,” is the excuse he uses to explain how he slept with his wife’s sister). It’s a beautiful scene and one which underscores just how powerful Jack Lemmon can be as a dramatic performer. And Bruce Davison is really effective in the understated role of Lemmon’s son. In fact, the only performance I wasn’t entirely happy with came from Andie MacDowell.

Bitter Lemmon...

Short Cuts is a rich and powerful film. It’s long, and it feels exhausting to watch – but that’s not a bad thing, to be honest. If you’re looking for an example of how to do an ensemble film, Short Cuts should definitely be on your shortlist.

4 Responses

  1. This reminds of Magnolia in many ways. Personally, I felt every story in Magnolia to be interesting by themselves, but the movie couldn’t tie them together in a meaningful way.

    How would you compare Short Cuts to Magnolia?

    • I know I’m going to hell, but I only saw Magnolia once a few years ago, and I absolutely hated it. I reckon I should give it a second chance though, but I remember just being taken aback by how self-indulgent it seemed at the time. Perhaps I’ve matured in the years since, though. I reckon – at the least – I’d be somewhat kinder towards it.

      • Ha, Magnolia was entertaining for about two hours until I just stopped caring. The unexplained frog shower didn’t help either. I can’t imagine a second viewing would improve my opinion.

  2. Interesting post, I think I’ll enjoy the film as I like films will multi stranded storylines that somehow intertwine in one way or another.

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