FEATURE SHORT CUTS
hen Americans get Respect they get it bad. In the USA. once an artist enters that hallowed hall of fame where their peers queue up to acclaim them as true crafts- men. geniuses or masters. they’re there for life.
You’ll find Raymond Carver and Robert Altman already safely ensconced in Hall A. Carver’s there for his blue-collar miniatures of the American Way. brilliantly-crafted short tales of alienation. frustration and bitter-sweet disappointment. His Respect Quotient took a sizeable boost when he died of cancer in August 1988. One obituary called him ‘the American Chekhov". an epithet that has stuck (although most people Stateside probably think it’s something to do with Star Trek).
Altman‘s still alive and kicking at 69. and the reverence with which his work is currently treated suggests he has no pressing need to head for that great editing suite in the sky just yet. His career has been built around the demolition of genre tradition. whether the Western (McCabe And Mrs Miller). the detective thriller (The Long Goodbye) or the biopic (Vincent And Theo). After a spell in the doldrums in the 80s he returned to prominence with 1992’s The Player. a savage and pointed in-joke at the expense of shallow movie people. that was just loved by . . . shallow movie people.
Put these two pedestal-squatting auteurs together. and you can expect a film that is going to receive double the reverence. double the spurious critical hyperbole. double the ‘we are Lnot worthy‘ adoration. And that’s pretty much
10 The List 25 March—7 April I994
Doreen and Earl (lin Tomlin and Tom Waits) settle their differences at the diner
With Short Cuts Robert Altman has once again garnered all the critical plaudits worth having for his adaptation of nine Raymond Carver stories. Tom Lappin peers through the LA haze.
what has happened with Short ('uts. Altman's reworking of nine of (‘arver‘s stories. It‘s already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. been acclaimed as an ‘epic master- piece’ and ‘easily the best American film ofthe yearK
In the face of such overburdening intellectual— ising and icon-polishinv. it‘s something of a surprise then to discover that behind the hype. Short Cuts is actually a remarkably human and entertaining tilm. several degrees more accessible than a synopsis might suggest. Altman has woven together the strands of (‘arver‘s stories. reinterpreted them liberally and come up with a soapy human drama that is by turns
comic. tragic. disturbing and evocative. It isn't hindered by the fact that the director has
assembled a remarkable cast of 22 principal actors including Anne Archer. Madeline Stowe. Tim Robbins. Tom Waits. Lyle Lovett. Jack Lemmon. Frances McDormand. Matthew Modine Tomlin.
Altman has shifted the locale from sleepy Washington State to suburban LA. a dusty. hazy mish-mash of trailers. condos and luxury hillside houses. The people have changed subtly too. from C‘arver‘s small—town losers and strong silent types to sleazier. more urban characters. Carver‘s people were market traders. pyramid sellers or factory hands. Altman‘s are phone-sex
Carver’s people were market traders, pyramid sellers or factory hands, Altman’s are phone-sex
operators, cops, pool attendants, make-up artists and TV newsmen.
operators. cops. pool attendants. make-up artists and TV newsmen. LA service industry phonics. with plenty of opportunities for cross- class intermingling.
And interminglc they most certainly do. Altman rarely misses a chance to forge links. Lily Tomlin drives into Andie MacDowell’s kid. The hospital doctor is married to artist
Julianne Moore. whose sister is having problems with husband Tim Robbins . . . and so
it spreads. like a kind of suburban virus pulling in a disparate mass of variously-discontented LA stories.
With the single exception of Andie MacDowell’s character. whose simpering
tweeness makes you kind ofglad her kid’s in the hospital. the cast show an admirable restraint and commitment to ensemble playing. That nobody steals the show (not even Tom Waits’s freewheeling dipso chauffeur Earl) is the basic strength of Short Cuts. its lack of central focus an incentive to enjoy the gaps and details. the essential aimlessness of it all. ‘I look at Carver’s work as just one story.‘ says Altman. ‘for his stories are all occurrences. all about things that just happen to people and cause their lives to take a turn. Maybe the bottom falls out. Maybe they have a near-miss with disaster. Maybe they just have to go on. knowing things they don’t really want to know about one another. They’re more about what you don't know rather than what you do know. and the reader fills in the gaps. while recognising the undercurrents.’
It‘s the undercurrents in Short Cuts that make it a remarkable film. Some of the most memorable moments occur where Altman departs entirely from Carver’s writing to create telling bleak moments of his own: Jennifer .lason Leigh talking dirty to a client while husband Chris Penn looks on and broods; estranged husband Peter Gallagher taking a chainsaw to his wife‘s furniture: Robert Downey Jr making up his wife with fake blood and bruises before photographing her Altman‘s feel for Carver‘s material is subtler than slavish reproduction. ‘Raymond Carver’s view of the world. and probably my own. may be termed dark by some.‘ he says. ‘We’re connected by similar attitudes about the arbitrary nature of luck in the scheme of things — a child being hit by a car. a marriage upheaval resulting from a body being discovered during a fishing trip . . . I know Ray Carver would have understood that I had to go beyond just paying tribute. Something new happened in the film. and maybe that‘s the truest form of respect.‘
Uh-oh. that ‘R’ word again. Regardless of the genuﬂecting reviews.Short Cuts should not allowed to be consigned to that dusty cupboard marked ‘critics’ faves'. next to 81/2 and Jules et Jim. In truth it’s a vastly better film than The Player simply by virtue of reaching out to a wider audience. feeding off a broader human experience. As Lily Tomlin says at one point. ‘Our whole life could have changed overnight.‘ Short Cuts is about those moments. and plenty more besides. Ll Short C uts opens at G/(ngOH‘ Film Theatre and Edinburgh Film/louse on Friday 25 March. A