Somebody wins the lottery. The same day, that person’s sister gets killed by a brick falling off a building in Seattle. Those are both the same thing. The lottery was won both ways. The odds of either happening are very much against you and yet they both happened. One got killed and the other got rich; it’s the same action.
– Robert Altman1
If it seems somewhat facile now – the conceit of constructing a feature film out of a diversity of distinct narratives – it is only because Robert Altman so successfully popularised it: first with Nashville (1975) then A Wedding (1978), and much later in Short Cuts (1993). It is only by remembering Altman’s place at the vanguard of this style that as contemporary viewers we can begin to appreciate the breathtaking ambition of a film like Short Cuts. Twenty-two principal characters, ten autonomous plot lines, 188 minutes and almost nothing to bind it together except the idea that we might be looking at a cross section of American society.
The narrative mosaic of Short Cuts is compiled from nine short stories and a poem written by Raymond Carver, the American author and proponent of dirty realism best known for his gritty and unflinching renderings of suburban American backwaters in collections like Cathedral (1983) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). Altman was clearly a Carver fan but he felt no imperative to be strictly loyal to the written texts, preferring instead a form of posthumous collaboration: “I had to go beyond just paying tribute. Something new happened in the film, and maybe that’s the truest form of respect.”2
Much has been made of Altman’s departures from the originals, especially his transposing the action from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles. Perhaps more significant is the director’s preference for characters from higher social strata than the staunchly blue-collar Carver. This latter change is mirrored in Altman’s aesthetic choices: he eschews the austere, dirty realism of Carver in favour of a lusher, occasionally lurid palette. But apart from these changes (and the inevitable loss of some of the fine grain of the written stories), Altman remains faithful to the tenor of Carver’s project, which was to evoke in his readers a reluctant sense of identification with the crushed dreams and broken homes of middle America.
Despite the glimpses of privilege, most of the characters in Short Cuts are driven by their work and the basic need to get by. We see a pool cleaner and his wife (a phone sex freelancer) trying to raise kids in a cramped apartment, her moaning with the phone jammed under her ear as she changes the baby’s nappy; a charismatic Tom Waits plays an alcoholic limousine driver courting an aging diner waitress; a birthday party clown financially supporting her husband as he drinks his way through the back page classifieds. No one is happy. Everyone drinks, or, in the case of the doctor, takes prescription meds.
Altman’s diagnosis of American malaise has, if anything, been born out in the twenty years since Short Cuts’ release. The last two decades have witnessed the failure of town planning and the canker of urban sprawl; the subprime mortgage crisis and the death knell it sounded of the great suburban dream of a house and two-point-five kids; spiralling youth unemployment; the breakdown of the nuclear family; an increase in middle-class substance abuse and a seemingly inexorable widening of the chasm of class inequality. At the risk of doing violence to the film’s multiplicity of themes, they are unified by the paradox by which the growth of the American city has resulted in increased feelings of isolation, atomisation and alienation rather than any communal ethos. The film is less a comment on interconnectedness (as the huge ensemble cast might suggest) than a portrayal of our insular, hermeneutic lives lived within giant metropolises; a comment on how industrialisation and the subsequent rise and rise of the mega city has resulted in less community, not more.
Perhaps the only missed opportunity here is Altman’s failure, in transplanting the setting to Los Angeles, to incorporate any Hispanic or African American characters. Doing so would have allowed the audience an insight into another invidious arbiter of social exclusion: race. Aside from its disinterest in non-white characters the film’s enduring flaw, and that by which it shows its age, is its treatment of women. Whether this criticism should be levelled at Altman, Carver or the patriarchal society they were both endeavouring to faithfully represent is, at best, uncertain. The female characters in Short Cuts are, almost without exception, controlled by, or reacting to, the actions of the male leads; men who typically behave terribly and get away with it.
If we want to rescue Altman from this critique we must enlist the help of the many fish in the film. Like the men, the fish in Short Cuts live with an illusory sense of freedom: swimming serenely in tropical tanks and mountain streams. But in what becomes a grotesque trope, the fish soon wind up caught on lines and in nets, gutted on rocks, dangling in doorways, sizzling on barbeques, trapped in tiny tanks and plastic bags, and ultimately eaten by bigger fish, or humans. For the viewer, the fish’s freedom is limited to a freedom to do whatever humans let them do. The fish then are hemmed in by forces and limits beyond their control, and so are the men (and women) in Altman’s world of powerful economic, familial, and natural forces. Despite the inarguable structural privileges accruing to men they too are subject to the vicissitudes of life; born into a particular body, a particular class, place, race, time. As much as the American dream would have them believe that they can shape their own destiny, Altman’s characters discover that the American dream is just that, a dream.
Short Cuts (1993 USA 188 min)
Prod Co: Spelling Pictures International; Cary Brokaw Productions; Avenue Pictures Prod: Cary Brokaw Dir: Robert Altman Scr: Robert Altman; Frank Barhydt Phot: Walt Lloyd Ed: Gerladine Peroni Mus: Mark Isham
Cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis.