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Film

America's Dirty Secrets Revealed in Robert Altman's Short Cuts

Tim Robbins in Short Cuts (1993)

Altman spent his entire career amplifying the hidden comedy in America’s soul. Short Cuts is his most sweeping and relatable sketch of the country caught off-guard.


Short Cuts

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Rated: R
US DVD release date: 2016-10-18

After directing M*A*S*H in 1970, Robert Altman’s goal as an artist seemed more and more to be to address the contradictions and complacency of American life and identity, to draw out its ironies and poke holes in its heart.

Shortly after his commercial breakthrough and within only two years, he took on the conflicted spirit of the two film genres that most framed American mythos: the western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and the detective story (The Long Goodbye); two years later, he explored the populist soul shared between American politics and country music in Nashville; following by yet another two years, 3 Women, his most enigmatic and impenetrable film, considered the mystery of individuality (the main tenet of American personal philosophy), and the quiet role of sexuality and violence in defining people. In one decade, Altman directed no less than five towering classics of American cinema, movies that exposed the disguised ugliness of our long-entrenched ideologies of excess and exceptionalism through an unmatched combination of wit, personality, and refreshing frankness.

Looking back now, Altman’s output in the ‘70s aligns well with the shifting worldview of the Western world, away from a period of widespread activism and social change toward one of contentment and self-satisfaction. As Altman’s films grew more dense and complex in their theses, American life became simpler, more self-absorbed and comfortable. Soon, the changing tide seemed to sweep even him off his feet; in 1980, he directed Popeye, today considered a legendary bomb and an awkward turn toward commercialized filmmaking for the director. Indeed, when the ‘70s ended, so did Altman’s prime period.

Altman survived the conservative and nostalgic ‘80s, an era which prized all the nationalistic folklore the director strived tirelessly to lampoon early in his career and reemerged in the ‘90s with a major career renaissance. The Player (1992) and 1993’s Short Cuts (1993) in particular found Altman re-embracing the pet themes of his past in the context of a new decade of global and national politics, dissecting a newly evolved form of nationalism.

Short Cuts sits comfortably beside Altman’s ‘70s output as another sharp-witted dissection of contemporary Americana, as well as another modern classic just as deserving of distinction as M*A*S*H and Nashville. The movie is staged as an adaptation of stories by American writer Raymond Carver which Altman shapes into an ensemble piece featuring nearly two dozen loosely related characters living in and around Los Angeles. The film jumps around a vast narrative web scene-by-scene, gradually revealing the intimate layers the characters all hide from each other, and eventually the audience is granted a full view of the messy coil that is contemporary American life. As critic Michael Wilmington states in his essay included in the booklet for the Criterion Collection edition of the film, Short Cuts shows us “a sense of what the country really is, rather than what it should be.”

As with Altman’s other knotted, ensemble-based dramatic comedies, Short Cuts is all about getting to know the characters and the world they represent. The collection of stooges, grifters, hard luck drunks, and petty bullies in Short Cuts may well be the most fully realized set of characters in any Altman film (no doubt helped by Carver’s heavy influence), but they’re certainly the most crass, obnoxious, and miserable. Almost all of them are cheats and abusers who use others only for their self-gain. Tim Robbins plays a cop who abandons his family dog far from home, then steals it back from a new family when he wants to curry the favor of his three kids; Annie Ross takes the role of a disconnected mother who drives her daughter to hate her through harsh words and callous neglect; Lyle Lovett has a cameo as a baker who harasses a family that never picks up a birthday cake they ordered because their child is hit by a car. True to life, many of the characters are bad people, and while they may make up with each other or accept their mistakes, they never really learn.

Maybe it’s hard to see where the comedy comes from with such a wild band of despicable misfits, but Altman’s satirical eye is pointed and dry, and the humor is as observational and relatable as often as it is absurd. The film casts a wide net; there are yuppies, dysfunctional families, and blue-collar average joes, and it’s easy to recognize their vices and virtues in ourselves and those around us. Unlike the narrower subjects of Altman’s early hits, Short Cuts provides a generalized view of modern life. We watch adulterers flirt, families break apart and reunite, people get worn down by their insecurities. It’s real and potent. The comedy is in being momentarily removed from ourselves, in suddenly seeing how ridiculous we look when we’re watching other people play our part.

Of course, this means the massive cast is essential to the film’s success, but luckily Altman, by then used to this kind of plot juggling, gives each actor the opportunity to pinpoint their character’s humanity and bring it to light (and it shows in the film’s three-hour runtime). Short Cuts also features one of the most impressive and well-rounded ensembles ever assembled: classic stars like Lily Tomlin and Jack Lemmon, prolific character actors from the period like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Modine, Chris Penn, and Andie MacDowell, fast-rising heavy-hitters like Robert Downey Jr. and Julianne Moore, and even a handful of music makers including Lovett, Huey Lewis, and Tom Waits, among others. The broad assortment of talent only enhances the film’s universality, appealing at once to every subset of American culture and bearing its naked soul.

For most of the film, the story cycles through the mundane and melodramatic lives of the characters who populate it, but ultimately, the movie culminates in a surprise act of God, a massive earthquake, experienced simultaneously by every character across Los Angeles. It seems to reflect the volatility of the human spirit as it catches the characters off-guard, illustrating the fragility of the insecure, petulant, selfish relationships explored through the film that threaten to crumble into dust at any moment. These are people who can’t figure out how to live with one another, but at the same time can’t even live with themselves. When the quake is over as quickly as it began, some of the characters are disappointed the tremor isn’t apocalyptic, that when the foundation stops shaking, they still have to face up to their lives and the fact that everyone they’re with is still a part of them. They’re lazy and self-absorbed, and surprisingly, they’re ashamed of it, but they’ll also never do anything about it. For them, everything is wrong; that’s just the way it is, and there’s no sense changing it. The movie seems to ask us to learn from their mistakes.

At his best, in Short Cuts as much as M*A*S*H or Nashville, Altman helped America interrogate itself, question its motives and magnify its guarded blemishes to see them more clearly. Today we’re faced with a new revolution of the American political cycle, swallowed by a fresh swell of jingoism and demagoguery so rude and transparent that Altman himself might have thought it up. Devastatingly, we no longer have him around to challenge the state of our nation, to mock and empathize with the high authorities and the common people alike, but he left us with more than enough evidence of our plight, and he said more about it than maybe anyone else. We still have a lot to learn, but movies like Short Cuts make it easy.

Through the years, Robert Altman’s greatest gift to the American people was to give us the self-awareness to laugh at our own hubris, and the wisdom to change when we need to. Short Cuts, like all Altman classics, is of a very specific time, but his legendary filmography and a life spent grappling with the ugly reality of American existence, has also never been more relevant.

***

The supplemental material offered with Criterion Collection's remastered edition of the film is varied, but very little goes beyond the realm of curiosity. Some of the more trivial bonuses included are three short but amusing deleted scenes, three audio demos featuring musical artist Dr. John performing the songs written for Annie Ross's jazz singer character in the film, and an audio interview conducted with Carver ten years before the release of Short Cuts, billed as "one of the few existing recordings of Carver's voice."

Only two of the special features provide a real glimpse at the making of the movie, but they're both extremely significant: a rich 30-minute discussion between Altman and Tim Robbins recorded in 2004, and Luck, Trust & Ketchup, a documentary focused on the film's production. Both are required viewing for Altman and Short Cuts fans.

Of course, Criterion don't stop there: they give Carver equal time in the spotlight with a 1992 PBS biographical documentary on his life, To Write and Keep Kind. In many ways, the inclusion of the latter is fitting, especially given the introduction to Luck, Turst & Ketchup which claims, in making Short Cuts, Altman "perhaps created the novel Carver was denied the time to write."

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