DVD Review Of Short Cuts

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/07


  Short Cuts, the three plus hour long film written and directed by Robert Altman (with co-writer Frank Barhydt), based upon a series of short stories by Raymond Carver, is an odd film. It’s not a bad film, nor is it even remotely a great film- the only two sorts of films that the hit (Nashville) and miss (Vincent And Theo) Altman has plenty of experience with. The nine stories and one poem of Carver’s, from the same titled anthology book, have been transplanted from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles, and many of the stories are made to cross over with each other, where they were unconnected in print, as well from different story collections, with several characters being based upon more than one character to help achieve that end. The problem is that the film loses focus when it centers on lesser written tales, which Altman does not make better, and on some tales which he actually makes worse. There are ten stories and two dozen characters that fill the screen, and a plenum of human melodrama, drama, and darkness fill the screen: joy, sadness, jealousy, fear, reconciliation, pain, infidelity, and death- accidental, murder, and suicide are among them.

  The quick moving vignettes are so filigreed that to do justice to each would take far too long, but most work well, until it comes to their resolutions. Yet, each tale could be its own film. Other films that follow this sprawling format- such as Grand Canyon, Magnolia, Crash (all set in Los Angeles, as well) are not as good, but the inevitable essence of such a film is that there are good threads and bad threads, as well as good and bad characters and actors, plus the fact that many of the narratives force their characters’ interactions to too great a degree. On the plus side there’s the comic antics of a waitress, Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin- an Altman vet from Nashville), and her drunk loser husband, Earl (Tom Waits). Through most of the film they just bicker, but the pair does have real chemistry. On the minus side is the thread following Doreen’s daughter Honey Bush (Lili Taylor) and her makeup artist husband Bill (Robert Downey, Jr.), and their friends Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Jerry Kaiser (Christopher Penn), a pool service man. Honey has no life and Lois does phone sex for a living, which enrages Jerry to commit a ridiculous and narratively pointless murder by the film’s end- based upon one of Carver’s worst short stories. The film tries to justify this by portraying Jerry as a wimpy castrated man who boils over, whereas Bill is an unrepentant poonhound. Yet, the earthquake that ends the film is used as a cover for the murder, even though Bill, and the friend of the girl Bill kills see him do it. The film simply stops before there’s any resolution. Not giving resolution in a film is a legitimate thing, if it shows a true slice of life. But, this thread just goes haywire, and to have a newsman read that the girl was killed by falling rocks in the earthquake suggests that Jerry must have killed Bill and the second girl- although no mention of their bodies is to be found. This is a GLARING narrative error, and almost damns the film as much as it did the individual story it was culled from.

  Fortunately, this film has other cards in the deck, unlike the single story. One of them is on the plus side- it is the tale involving the accidental death of a little boy, Casey Finnigan (Zane Cassidy), who runs into a car driven by Doreen- not the other way around, as is often misstated. She tries to help him but is rebuffed by the boy. He then collapses at home. His mother, housewife Ann Finnigan (Andie MacDowell), and father Howard (Bruce Davison), a newsman, sit vigil by his bedside until he dies. Yet, their lives are besieged from without. Howard’s father Paul (Jack Lemmon) stops by the hospital. He is addle-minded but loaded with guilt over cheating on Howard’s mother, and being banished from his son’s life. Then there is the local baker, Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), from whom Ann orders her son’s birthday cake. When she does not pick it up he calls and harasses the grieving couple. This tale mixes two of Carver’s best tales, but the payoff, at the end of that narrative, is not quite as strong as it is at the end of Carver’s tale. On the minus side is the anomic narrative of the Finnigans’ neighbors, the Trainers. Mother and daughter Tess (Annie Ross) and Zoe (Lori Singer) are musicians who are not close. Tess is a bad jazz singer and Zoe a cellist who has a quintet. Not much occurs in this thread until, inexplicably, after the Finnigans’ boy dies, Zoe suicides. The inference is that Tess is to blame, and a bad mother, but Zoe is clearly ‘off,’ and not a sympathetic character.

  On the plus side is a humorous tale following three fishermen- Gordon (Buck Henry), Vern (Huey Lewis)- what was it with musicians in this film (Lewis, Lovett, and Waits)?, and Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), who find a dead naked body while fishing, and do nothing until their trip is over. On the minus side is the pointless conflation of Stuart’s wife Claire (Anne Archer)- a professional clown, with Alex Trebek- the Jeopardy game show host, and her artist friend Marian Wyman (Julianne Moore), whose tale centers about her years earlier affair with a man her husband cannot forget. Her husband, Dr. Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), is also the doctor for the Finnigans’ boy. On the plus side is the tale of a comically bad father and cop named Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins) who gets rid of, then recovers, the family dog. His wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) is also a friend of Marian Wyman’s, and poses nude for her. Also on the plus side is the tale of Gene’s lover Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand) and her psychotic news helicopter pilot ex-husband Stormy (Peter Gallagher), who takes to destroying her house while she’s on a weekend getaway.

  So, overall, the good outweighs the bad, and most of the good tends to be the ‘lighter’ tales- but nothing approaches greatness because there is nothing deeper here- no dramatic resonance, as in Nashville, nor even the comic M*A*S*H. Of course, there are many little subtexts that I have not gotten into- such as the supposed advances Earl Piggott made on his stepdaughter Honey, but none of them- as that one, go anywhere. That said, they would not have to go anywhere if the main threads were a bit richer, better written, and more profound. The best that is proffered by the film is that people sometimes err, and take things the wrong way- like Bitkower’s assumptions about why the Finnigans abandoned their cake- sort of like the old order a pizza for the neighbor you hate scheme, or the Finnigans’ assumptions that the driver of the car that hit Casey was somehow to blame. That, or they’re so self-absorbed that they cannot empathize with anyone else- like Gene Shepard, Tess Trainer, Paul Finnigan, or Lois Kaiser. But, this is hardly Bergmanian in its profundity.

  Altman is known for his improvisations. Next to John Cassavetes, he’s rightly hailed as America’s premier improvisational filmmaker. Yet, this film has none of the seeming spontaneity of his other large ensemble films, all steeped in that motif and method. Yes, this is supposed to be a ‘slice of life,’ and for dramatic purposes, one can even ignore the forced coincidences that bring such a small group of people into each others’ orbits in such a small stretch of time, in a city so large. But, very little happens, and unlike the best of Cassavetes films, where life also goes on, this film shows that little has been learnt by its characters and, more importantly, by its viewers.

  The DVD of the film, put out by The Criterion Collection, comes on disk one of a two disk set, that also features a small paperback copy of the Carver book of short stories of the same name, from Vintage Press. Its transfer is not that good. I’ve seen far older films that were restored much better. There is much graininess and dirt in this mediocre transfer, and the aspect ratio is 2.35:1. There is also no commentary on the film, which is a great disappointment. There are many extras on disk two, however: a feature-length documentary, Luck, Trust, And Ketchup: Robert Altman In Carver Country, on the making of the film, and a half-hour interview, Reflections On Short Cuts, with Tim Robbins querying Altman. Then there are features on Carver, himself. Aside from the book, there is a PBS documentary on Carver- To Write And Keep Kind, a BBC special, Moving Pictures, about the Short Cuts screenplay, a radio interview with Carver, deleted scenes, and some other minor extras- including liner notes with an essay by Michael Wilmington, a 1983 audio interview with Carver, and others.

  Short Cuts is a film almost wholly devoted to the written word, as all great films are, but its ‘little above average’ goodness, rather than greatness, stems from the fact that the words of Carver- as hit and miss in prose as Altman is on film, are never allowed their full power nor poesy. Despite what others have said, Carver was no minimalist. Becekett was a minimalist. Carver was merely lean in his prose- which is not synonymous with minimalism, but he was rich in characterization and ‘moment’- at his best. This film never quite finds that groove. It is like 85% of the way to an orgasm, but the result is that its wad is never shot, although its member ripens. This impotence comes not only from the screenplay’s flaws, but from the anomic cinematography of Walt Lloyd- who will have no one comparing him to Sven Nykvist, and the off the rack musical scoring of Mark Isham.

  There is also much pointless nudity in the film- mostly female, which has led feminist critics to damn the film. Usually, their critiques are downright silly- and vapidly lead them to stick out their tongues and call Carver a ‘misogynist’, or worse. He’s not, clearly, but as the nudity is pointless- such as a muff shot of Julianne Moore cleaning wine from her dress as she fesses up to her infidelity, why is it included? Is her orange pubic hair so greatly symbolic or ironic? No. Is it realism? Perhaps, but it is ‘cheap realism’. Marketing is a more likely and truthful reply. Yet it is the ‘real realism’ of the film that is mother to its best moments, little moments like Paul Finnigan’s egg trick, Claire Kane’s pretending to sign the guest book at the funeral of the dead girl her husband had no compassion for, or the humorous photo mixup where Gordon sees the photos of a ‘dead’ Honey that Bill staged, and Honey and Lois see the photos of the dead girl in the river that Gordon also did not empathize with, which lead both parties to memorize the others’ license plates in order to report them to the police. That the ‘real reality’ of this work of art is so few and far between, and leads to its diminution, one wonders what a good dollop of, say ‘real fiction’ may have added? A little more Carver and a little less ‘tang may have been the best and shortest cut this film had to greatness.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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