Short Cuts: Altman’s Anthology of Raymond Carver’s Short Stories

Fine Line Release

Robert Altman, who is 68, is probably one of the most important filmmaker of his generation,  at the peak of his faculties.

Altman’s screen career has been one of the most erratic in Hollywood, with as many ups as downs. In a recent history text of American films, Altman was described as “the ultimate director of the l970s.” Altman made four or five masterpieces in the early l970s, “M.A.S.H.,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (my personal favorite), “The Long Goodbye,” “Thieves Like Us,” and the Oscar-nominated “Nashville,” which was also singled out as the best film of l975 by my New York colleagues.

Last year, some of us at the L.A. Film Critics Association voted for Altman as best director for “The Player.” But, alas, all the kudos went to Clint Eastwood’s excellent revisionist Western, “Unforgiven,” and Altman received honorary mention as runner-up. Once again, our peers in New York cited “The Player” as best picture of l992.

Based on Raymond Carver’s short stories, “Short Cuts” lacks the unifying focus and intense emotional involvement of “The Player.” It bears close resemblance to Nashville, with its multi-layered narrative, breezy character treatment, smooth transition among two dozens of disparate characters who cross paths, witty music–and above all, a layer of cynical, often bitter, commentary on the action.

Switching the locale of Carver’s stories from the Northwest to Los Angeles, Altman interweaves a complex tale of contemporary lifestyles in our urban milieu. As is often the case with such episodic material, some stories, some characters, and some actors are more interesting than others.

I particularly liked the middle-aged couple played by Lili Tomlin, a down-to-earth waitress, and her alcoholic husband, played by Tom Waits.

Tim Robbins, as a malicious police officer who cheats on his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and is insensitive to his children, also renders a splendid performance. But best of all was Jennifer Jason Leigh, arguably the most versatile performer of her cohort, cast here as a woman who makes ends meet by working as a sex telephone operator, using the most foul language one can imagine; her husband (Chris Penn) repairs pools.

Who knows, perhaps it takes an outsider to examine L.A. in a more dispassionate, cynical way than such recent valentines to our city as Steve Martin’s L.A. Story. That none of Short Cuts’ characters is genuinely happy and that they all betray one another may be a more realistic portraiture than we would like to believe.

Altman may be the only filmmaker who brings a truly ironic, irreverent gaze to bear on traditional American values, such as monetary success, monogamous marriage and the nuclear family. As he demonstrated in Nashville–and other pictures–his style in Short Cuts is full of quirks and surprises.

One can argue about the melodramatic device, an earthquake, that Altman used at the end of his 3-hour-plus picture to unify the characters. But that’s a minor complaint against a director who has been trying to revise the very conventions of mainstream cinema, the very ways of constructing and telling a narrative. Peppered with enticing cameo appearances by major stars (among them, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Archer) and biting commentary, Short Cuts is a self-reflexive, multi-layered interpretation of the way we live now and the only post-modernist American film of the year.