The Great Human Drama as Mosaic: Short Cuts

Robert Altman collected one of the most diverse and talented cast of actors for his ambitious and sprawling 1993 film Short Cuts. Taking place over the course of a few days in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, we follow well over twenty characters as they intersect with one another amid their life events.

The cast includes a few The Player recruits, like Tim Robbins, Andie McDowell, Fred Ward, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gallagher; but also Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Jennnifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey JR., Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, to name but a few.

The film plays out in a novelistic fashion. Working it’s way through the lives of all of these characters and their families examining what motivates, haunts, depresses, and informs their lives. There are a few moments that really stick out among the others for me, in a film that is over three hours and packs so many scenes and characters into its structure. The construct of the screenplay and the story itself is adapted from nine Raymond Carver short stories. With the location of the Pacific Northwest switched out for Los Angeles. This is reminiscent of Altman’s creative 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye in which a out of place Phillip Marlowe found himself in another world.

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Ann (Andie McDowell) and Howard (Bruce Davison) are dealing with tragedy when their nine year old son Casey is struck by a car being driven by Doreen (Lily Tomlin). He appears fine for hours after the accident. But he is then found unconscious at his home sometime later, and we learn has slipped into a coma. The accident itself was minor and after checking on Casey, Doreen felt okay leaving, despite giving herself quite the scare. Doreen waitresses at a local diner and frequently is visited by her alcoholic limo driver husband Earl (Tom Waits).

Howard and Anne’s pool cleaner Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) helps out with the kids in the evenings while his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works as a phone sex operator. Saying the most obscene things while Jerry tries his best not to pay attention. Three friends, Stuart (Fred Ward), Gordon (Buck Henry), and Vern (Huey Lewis) are excited to head out on a fishing trip, only to find when they get there the dead body of a young woman. They deicide when they’re ready to leave call it in to the authorities, as to not interrupt their trip. Stuart tells his wife what happened, Claire (Ann Archer) is appalled at Stuart’s behavior – that he would continue fishing for three days while there was a dead woman’s body in the water.

This is a fascinating scene to see how two people jusify their feelings of a circumstance and situation. One is dealing with the practicality and reality of the situation, and the other is empathizing with the victim at the center of the circumstance. Claire goes on to find out more about the woman in question, and even attends her funeral service and burial.

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I found myself surprised at how well rounded all of the scenes felt to me. How they went from comedic to tragic in the blink of an eye, and how Altman balanced it all with making it feel spontaneous and as if it were happening in real time. The camera, like in other Altman productions, doesn’t rest and is always an active participant in the evolution of a given scene. Adding to the mosaic feel of the entire picture. We are given the time to see these characters interact and be fleshed out to explore their insecurities, fears, frustrations, limitations, and flaws. And whether you like the specific style Altman is known for, it’s a magnificent cinematic accomplishment that feels truly intimate.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed Magnolia, which is a very similar story type to Short Cuts. And is something of a homage to Altman, who he greatly admired and respected. Short Cuts is that epic of a film, and attempts to capture something organic about the human condition in modern America, or just in general life. About how much control we don’t have over what happens to us, or where we end up, or where we’re going.

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There is a depressing realism sewn into the very fabric of this film. So much so that it at times reminded me of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the kind of narrative that is full of pessimism and realist philosophies. That’s the part that I really liked about Short Cuts, those down trodden feelings of being lost in a sea of noise and drama, perpetuating itself again and again with no end in sight.

At the end of the film there is an event that we see impact everyone we’ve come into contact with all around Los Angeles. Shortly before this occurs, Jerry and Bill (Robert Downey JR.) are talking to two girls in a park trying to seduce them. The consequences are shocking. It’s so fascinating to be put in a place so unfamiliar, by a director who I’ve long since admired. Almost as if I didn’t know that Altman had it in him to be so dark and disturbing. It’s so wonderful to be surprised by an artist in this way, something you didn’t know was possible can occur. Short Cuts is an epic human drama story, one that resonates deeply with me at the inevitability of civilization.

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