a stunning achievement, marred only by the overambitious impulse that led Altman to try to juggle nine stories instead of, say, six

James Plath's picture

There's a scene in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" where a fleet of helicopters hovers before landing. But this film isn't about the Korean War wounded, which was the backdrop for Altman's "M*A*S*H." This time the helicopters are returning after spraying chemicals to kill a plague of medflies that threatens residents, both literally and metaphorically. This time he's filming the walking wounded of writer Raymond Carver's world. Sort of.

Carver's minimalist stories feature slender plots and terse, whiskey-clouded dialogue where most of the action and significant details aren't mentioned. The basic facts are left for readers to discern as they voyeuristically witness the lives of Carver's alcoholic, blue-collar down-and-outs who are typically at the ends of their ropes. Their spouses have just left them, or are going to leave, and they're out of work, or soon to be out of work because of the crap jobs they have to take to get by, jobs that make them drink more than they should. More than anybody should.

Carver was an alcoholic throughout his thirties, ingesting as much as a quart of hard liquor per day and having to be hospitalized or endure protracted stints in rehab four times. Like his father, he grew up in Yakima, Washington and had kids way too young, after which he was expected to work the sawmills the way his father did and drink to blunt the unpleasant reality of their existence. Carver's characters are for the most part lacking in education, inhabitants of small towns in the Pacific Northwest—Yakima, Washington, or Arcata and Eureka, California. They live in trailers, shacks, and modest homes. Not relatively comfy Los Angeles digs.

In "Short Cuts," Altman has taken nine of Carver's stories and one poem as inspiration for a film which weaves together the plots and characters while taking enormous liberties which were nonetheless approved by Carver's widow, poet Tess Gallagher. In "Short Cuts" the character's are transplanted from the Pacific Northwest to L.A., and from a lower economic class to the middle and lower-middle class. The characters now also overlap from story to story to create an ever-shifting collage.

Here are the stories he chose:

"Neighbors"—in which a couple is asked to look after their neighbor's place while they're away, and the husband develops a fetish for going over their with the key and snooping around, even trying on clothes . . . hers.

"They're Not Your Husband"—where a between-jobs heavy drinker stops in at the diner where his wife waitresses and reevaluates her after hearing men make jokes about her cellulite and varicose veins when she bends over to get something.

"Vitamins"—about a culture of door-to-door vitamin sellers and an uncomfortable evening that results when a male salesman takes a female friend he wants to bed to a mostly black club where a Vietnam vet comes on to her and things get tense.

"Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"—where the marriage of two teachers (unusually high on Carver's occupational and economic scale) is threatened by the man's probing into an incident that happened three years ago.

"So Much Water So Close to Home"—where three men on a fishing trip discover the nude body of a young woman in the river and, not wanting to spoil their vacation, continue fishing, something that damages one man's marriage.

"A Small, Good Thing"—in which an over-protective mother orders a special cake for her son's birthday, then is tormented by calls from the baker saying the boy's name and trying to collect for the cake, not knowing that the boy had been struck by a car.

"Jerry and Molly and Sam"—about a man cheating on his wife who's driven crazy by the family dog and drives it to an unfamiliar neighborhood to let it loose, which, of course, creates turmoil in the household.

"Collectors"—where an out-of-work man whose wife left him is beset by a vacuum salesman insisting on doing a demonstration.

"Tell the Women We're Going"—about two couples with the usual unhappiness, where the men tell the women they're going for a run and end up running into two girls in the middle of nowhere, with disastrous (and atypically melodramatic) consequences.

And "Lemonade," a poem that gives Altman themes about death and dying to stir into the mix.

Obviously, Altman chose the stories for their flexibility and compatibility, and perhaps that's why some of Carver's most interesting and frequently anthologized stories—"Feathers," "Cathedral," "Why Don't You Dance?," "Elephant," and "Chef's House"—aren't included. But it's hard to figure why Altman chose "Collectors" over the more offbeat "Viewfinder" (where a man in a similar situation has a run-in with a door-to-door peddler with no hands).

If you're looking for a faithful transcription of Carver's stories, this isn't it. And when their lives seem so much better off (with the exception of Earl and Doreen, from "They're Not Your Husband") that it would take a while for them to slip down to the ends of their ropes, their actions seem more extreme, even incomprehensible. But my guess is that Altman never had to search for something to sell to pay for his next meal, or stand in line at a free clinic, and he might not understand the driving force behind the despair that Carver's characters feel. For them, their relationships are destroyed because of the drinking, which is the result of living a bottom-rung, dead-end existence. The characters in Altman's film are so upscale that Carver, who died of lung cancer in 1988, wouldn't recognize their situations.

Still, as a film, if you throw out the notion of faithfulness to the stories, and ignore Altman's maximalist treatment of Carver's minimalist tales (at 183 minutes, this feels WAY too long)—there's much to admire in "Short Cuts."

For one thing, you can't beat the cast. Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison are excellent as the parents of the eight year old who was struck by a car, and Jack Lemmon turns in his usual flawless performance as the errant grandfather added for the film. Matthew Modine plays well opposite Julianne Moore, whose affair he dredges from the past. Jennifer Jason Leigh is funky as a housewife who carries on phone sex (another invention) while taking care of her kids. Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Penn are believable as middle-aged men who bolt the minute they see two twentysomethings. Tim Robbins (elevated to a motorcycle cop for the movie) does a lot with his role as the man trying to dispose of the family dog. Lily Tomlin should have been fatter to play Doreen, but Tom Waits is the perfect Earl, who makes his wife go on a diet after men make fun of her body. Lyle Lovett is just as well cast as the baker (though Altman goes off the deep end with his phone harassment of the couple, which was more innocent in the story). And Frances McDormand does the Kathy Bates "brave" thing, baring herself for the cause as one of many unhappy wives, in a role that's much expanded from the scant two pages of Carver's fiction. Peter Gallagher also does a decent job as her vengeful ex-.

But it's Altman's cinematography, juxtapositions, and cinematic transitions that make "Short Cuts" a visual delight. There are overlapping characters, overlapping images and music, and even overlapping dialogue. The film opens with a sign warning of medflies, followed by a shot of helicopters dumping pesticides, then a TV announcer (who turns out to be the father of the boy who gets hit by a car). Take a "short cut" to another household, where the same news broadcast is playing, and we see Jason Leigh's character plying her phone-sex trade. And the background jazz vocalist we hear throughout all of this? Suddenly a scene opens up and we see the singer inside a jazz club, and later turning up as the neighbor to the newscaster. Such visual linkages persist throughout the film, with almost all of them highly successful. The cinematography is absolutely first-rate, with camera angles and cuts that enhance our view of the characters rather than calling undue attention to the filmmaker.

And the characters? The guys from the fishing trip turn up on the lunch counter stools at Doreen's restaurant, Doreen ends up driving the car that hits that little boy, the phone sex lady ends up being married to one of the guys who pursues the twentysomething girls in the mountains, one of those guys ends up being the pool cleaner for the parents of the eight year old boy, and the rest of the characters similarly intertwine in ways that feel more stylized than forced. Altman manages to juggle the plots effectively until the end, when he loses touch with Carver's world and brings on an ending better suited for a disaster flick.

"Short Cuts" is presented in color from a new, restored high-definition digital transfer that was approved by the director, preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the theatrical release. And the picture quality is stunning. It doesn't take long to see that, because the helicopters lit at night as they make their choreographed run to drop pesticides is so clear and sharp that they
could pass for digital images. That quality persists throughout the film, no matter what the lighting or whether the camera pans or zooms in for tight close-ups.

There are two audio options. The Dolby Digital 5.1 option is a 6-track mix from the 70mm theatrical release, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is a 2-track mix from the 35mm theatrical release. There's also an isolated music soundtrack, and you can switch from option to option by pressing the audio button on your remote. The 6-track mix is bright and vibrant, something you can hear especially when the horns play in the jazz band, but the 2-track mix is also decent if your equipment is better suited to that option.

Criterion is known for putting together bulging packages of extras, and this one caters to literature lovers. A special book featuring all the stories and the poem that inspired the film accompanies this two-disc set, and I heartily recommend that you read the stories before you see the film. It makes Altman's "weave" of plots and characters much more fun to watch. Altman provides an extended introduction to the stories, in which he talks about the relationship between the film and Carver's fiction.

There's a complete 1983 audio interview conducted by Kay Bonetti that covers a wide range of topics, from the autobiographical to the technical, which could only have been better had Criterion provided a better on-screen image of Carver than the artsy menu-screen that remains throughout the discussion. The interview is a real treasure for literature lovers (and teachers who use Ray Carver stories in their classrooms). So is a BBC mini-documentary from the "Moving Pictures" series, which compares elements of "Jerry and Molly and Sam" to the film version and features plenty of interviews. Better still is a documentary on the making of "Short Cuts," which shows Altman and others behind the scenes, and better than that a documentary on Ray Carver made for the Seattle PBS affiliate. This documentary is SO superior to the typical PBS bios that I can't begin to describe the many ways. The talking heads are all people who knew Carver, including his first wife, his mother, his brother-in-law, his editors, and his writer friends, and some of the amazing footage includes clips of Gallagher at the gravesite and at Sky House, where she and Carver wrote, overlooking Puget Sound. There's only one academic, and what makes this documentary click is the spirit of Ray Carver, who remains alive and well in those who knew him and who speak candidly about him—even Carver's mother, who tells how she threw the book across the room when she read what he had to say about her in "Boxes." Writers Tobias Wolff and Ann Beattie provide some of the best insights, as does Carver's writing teacher from Humboldt State, who gives a tour of Carver Country and talks about the real "Chef's House." And Studs Terkel is the voice who reads Carver's poems that provide the narrative for some of the scenes and re-enactments.

There's no commentary, but you know what? Who in his right mind would want a director's commentary attached to a movie that's more than three hours long? Instead, we get an intelligent and informal conversation between two directors—Altman and Robbins—who sit at a bar and have a beer together while reminiscing about the film. It's fascinating to hear them talk. Samples? The kid who got hit by the car was a stunt man's kid, someone who knew how to fall. And Jason Leigh's phone-sex talk was all improv, as was Robbins' attempted pick-up of a woman in clown costume that he stops for an alleged traffic violation. Good stuff here, and they cover more ground than just "Short Cuts."

For an unexpected treat, Dr. John, whose four songs provide the basic soundtrack for the film, can be heard on an audio demo tape playing the piano and singing "To Hell with Love," "I Don't Know You," and "Full Moon."

There are just two deleted scenes and one alternate, all of them short, but the "Hey Clown" clip will leave you laughing. Rounding out the extras is a look at how the film was marketed, and an insert that gives full cast and crew information and provides a contextual essay by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington.

In short, wow!

Bottom Line:
Altman crafts a torpid tapestry that's faithful in spirit to the Carver stories, and, by weaving characters in and out of the plots from nine tales, he manages to affirm patterns of behavior that plague them all as much as those nasty medflies. It's a stunning achievement, marred only by the overambitious impulse that led Altman to try to juggle nine stories instead of, say, six, and the Hollywood gene that made him reach into his denim disaster bag near the film's end. And while the mother and daughter musicians he added to the film obviously add musical texture and reinforce the notion of "Short Cuts" playing like a succession of jazz riffs on a Carver melody, the characters themselves aren't as interesting as those that Carver created. That "Short Cuts" is still compelling, despite those flaws, is a tribute to both Carver and Altman.


Film Value