This is the first part of a new series in which I will exploring the films released in the last 23 years which could most reasonably be argued for a place within the canon of cinema. Why 23 years? Well, that’s how long I’ve been on this planet, and it seems like an interesting way to explore the way that film and film culture has changed in that time. These films won’t necessarily be the best, but they will have made the most impact in some way or another.
For this series it seemed right to start with a film released in the year of my birth, and so with Short Cuts we have a sprawling late period work from one of the New Hollywood’s premier names: Robert Altman. Like so many of his contemporaries, Altman had a difficult 80s, unable to reconcile his reputation after burning out with the beleaguered production of Popeye. It wasn’t until 1992’s The Player, a particularly sharp Hollywood satire that revived Altman’s critical and commercial prospects, netting him a Best Director award from Cannes in the process, that Altman returned to the height of his powers. Back in the centre of mainstream cool, Altman embarked upon his most ambitious project since Nashville, an adaptation of ten Raymond Carver short stories which transports the action from the midwest to Los Angeles (more cinematic? Closer to home for Altman and the actors?) and attempts to interweave these tales of day-to-day life and marital strife.
What stuns, for a film that passes the 3 hour mark, is how accessible, entertaining and compulsively watchable this is. I have read these stories before and suggest that a passing familiarity with Carver’s work is preferable to better adapt to the rhythms and extremities of the stories here, which include an unexpectedly mean turn from Tim Robbins as a bitter cop who tries to get rid of the family dog, a Lily Tomlin/Tom Waits plotline that draws from various stories and features career best performances from both actors, and a repressed Chris Penn, whose wife Jennifer Jason Leigh is a phone sex operator. All 22 main characters have huge, life changing moments, which often seem to change nothing, and it is through masterful editing that Altman juggles these storylines while still allowing us to feel the cumulative weight of every character’s arc.
Altman is a master of the slow zoom, drawing our attention to different parts of the frame as suits him, with the distant reserve of a cinema verite documentarian. This naturalism is aided by his trademark sound design, in which he often has two separate conversations occurring at the same time in the same shot, people either talking across each other or on opposing sides of the frame. The marvel of his timing and sound editing is that the audience never feels as though they have missed a beat. The combination of the removed visuals and naturalistic sound achieves the effect of making one feel as though they are watching real public conversations, like you’re eavesdropping, getting closer to the characters. We become sympathetic to the plight of every character, for we take on the luxury of omniscience not afforded by reality.
For these are private, intimate moments between couples feeling the most extreme emotions. Jealousy, resentment, rage, lust, love, joy, forgiveness, it’s all there in these people’s actions and
reactions. In that respect this is like a Cassavetes movie on the grandest scale possible, and surely that great director would be proud of the unobtrusive naturalism on display here. Altman even finds a brutal way of tying the various plot threads together in a way that preempts the magical realist ending of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia by six years. This is American cinema at it’s finest, most subtle, challenging and rewarding.
One wonders, in our age of peak TV, if this would even be a film project at all today, or if it would be a miniseries on HBO or the like. After all, that would make Short Cuts more appealing for those put off by the running time. But to spread out the structure, making it fit into hourlong chunks with a climax at the end of each episode, would disregard how the compressed time and constantly shifting rise and fall of action, when viewed as one whole, creates a feeling of being stuck, like the characters, in the span of a few days which never seem to end, but which are suddenly over, and some things have changed, and some things haven’t, but we march on regardless. It is a perfect embodiment of Carver’s work, and manages to be depressing and uplifting at the same time. In fact, it makes Short Cuts feel like everything, which when you watch this film, you will believe.