Robert Altman’s deliriously-intricate LA mosaic is just about the last word in ensemble film. With effortless style, Altman’s observational approach to the collection of Raymond Carver writings used to inspire this film creates a uniquely disarming melodrama which starts out as a light satirical farce, then sharply turning into dead serious emotional powerhouse.
Short Cuts (1994) dir. Robert Altman
Starring: Tim Robbins, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Andie McDowell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Matthew Modine, Jack Lemmon, Peter Gallagher, Madeline Stowe, Lyle Lovett
By Alan Bacchus
The work put into plotting out the movements and crossovers of the two dozen characters which circle the city of Los Angeles in the 48 hours or so of this movie is mind-boggling. The core stories which carry most of the weight is Finnegan Family whose son is hit by a car and is hospitalized much to the distress of their parents (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison). Typifying the fine line between tragedy and comedy in the picture is Lyle Lovett’s character, as a baker who torments the couple through crank calls to their home phone for not picking up the birthday cake ordered for the child.
Secondly, there’s the trio of Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis who, while on a fishing trap discover a dead body floating in the water. Instead of calling it into the police, the men continue their vacation unfazed by the murder only to report it after the trip. Like the Finnegan predicament Altman deftly turns the grisly discovery into a situation darkly comedic. This segment famously turned up as a separate filmic adaption in Ray Lawrence’s 2006 drama Jindabyne. The two films, while based on the same source material, couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Other memorable characters such as Lily Tomlin as a waitress who’s ogled by the trio of fishermen, but also becomes the one who hits the Finnegan’s child with her car; Tim Robbins, who then appeared in many of Hollywood’s memorable films of the era, as an adulterer/policeman who takes his own self-absorbed jealously of his wife out on the family dog; and breakout newbie Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine as another bickering, philandering couple who distract themselves from their own malaise by partying and drinking heavily in their Hollywood Hills home.
Of course these snippets only scratch the surface of the intricate plot machinations which run its course over the picture’s breezy three-hour running time. Despite over 20 years between M.A.S.H. and Short Cuts Altman’s well-honed cinematic techniques still feel fresh and innovative. The observing style of Altman which famously uses overlapping dialogue tracks to move the audience’s point of view between characters and storylines becomes raison d’etre of the film. Same with the then-unfashionable zoom lenses which elegant complement the audio techniques.
What emerges organically from the stylized plotting, myriad of characters and overt production techniques is Altman’s cutting indictment of middle class triviality. By the time the imposition of the citywide Earthquake unifies his characters – an act of God famously recreated as a shower of frogs by Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia – we come to pity each of the characters and revile them for their self-absorption. But we’re saved from the bleakness of Anderson’s Magnolia, the audience of Short Cuts can always take pleasure in our superiority to the vacuum of Altman’s characters.
Short Cuts is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.