R, 187 min, 1993

Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Raymond Carver (writings), Robert Altman (screenplay) & Frank Barhydt (screenplay)
Stars: Andie MacDowell, Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins

Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, like his early masterpiece Nashville (1975), is yet another epic-length mosaic of dozens of seemingly disparate lives weaving, warping and, yes, occasionally intersecting over a cross-section of a specific time and place (in this case, early 90s Los Angeles). The film, far from the Raymond Carver Country of the short stories (and one poem) on which it is based, trades in the rainy, dour Pacific Northwest for the almost fluorescent aqua blue swimming pools, white stucco houses and picturesque green lawns of suburban Southern California, but its characters embody Carver’s spirit of emotional and psychological nudity and fragility – something Altman has delved into before.

Above all, Altman’s (and presumably Carver’s) purpose seems to be to strip down these everyday human beings to reveal what makes them tick and that, ultimately, we can’t really know what a person is going through without being in their shoes. Take, for example, the baker Mr. Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), who works very hard for a living and takes it very badly when the parents of a child don’t show up to pick up the special birthday cake he was asked to make. He gets frustrated, and angry, tension building as he begins making what could best be described as terroristic phone calls to the parents (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison) of the boy. How could he know that the day the mother ordered the cake, her son was hit by a car and lies in a coma? That they’ve been too distracted to deal with doing what they said they’d do despite the fact that he held up his end of the bargain?

For that matter, who could know what it is like to be the waitress (Lily Tomlin) who was driving the car that hit the boy? She wanted to take him to the hospital, sure, but his mother told him “Never go with strangers,” and she didn’t want to impose so she let him go off alone (he ends up collapsing comatose on the couch at home where his mother finds him). The fact that she worries about what could’ve happened to her had the boy died, or what could’ve happened to the boy for that matter (he does eventually die) but that she never finds out during the course of the film is one of the neat little tricks Altman and Carver pull off – sometimes you can only know what it’s like to be in your own shoes, and you best keep moving for fear of someone else’s plight making your hair stand on end.

In a sense, a similarly dour situation faces the fishermen (Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis) who go to enjoy a nice little weekend trip to the lake only to discover the slowly decomposing body of a young woman right in their fishing spot. Do they call the police and ruin their own weekend or do they put it off because, well, she’s dead and there’s no rush, right? The answer may surprise you.

Altman and Carver’s characters are also consumed by petty, everyday sexual jealousies. Just as the doctor (Matthew Modine) and his wife (Julianne Moore) have his obsession and consumption over her virtually certain infidelity quite a while earlier, there is a counterpoint in the story of the pool cleaner (Chris Penn), whose wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) operates as a phone sex worker from the privacy of their own home (indeed, some of the funniest and most uncomfortable moments in the film occur when she’s performing obscene phone conversations while changing diapers or cleaning up messes). The pain of the pool cleaner is obvious and quite understandable: Why can’t his wife talk to him like she talks to her customers? Does she prefer her line of work or is it merely a means to an end, with her husband meant to be the sane rock of security at the center of her world? And because we understand his pain and frustration, is it then almost understandable (if not permissible) that he goes insane at the conclusion of the film, beating an innocent female hiker to death with a rock? Presumably she is merely another “cock-teaser” (like his wife) and he has had enough. No, that doesn’t make it right, but how can we know what is in someone’s heart unless we walk a mile in their shoes?

Finally, there is that heartbreaking monologue in the hospital between the father (Davison) of the comatose boy and his own father (Jack Lemmon), who has been missing in action ever since his wife and he were divorced. You think things are black and white, that your father must be some kind of monster because he cheated on your mother, she caught him, and he left, but sometimes things aren’t quite so simple. Indeed, Lemmon’s explanation of what happened the day everything in their lives changed goes beyond the usual excuses and seems to venture into a sublime realm of soul-unburdening (this is who knows how many years in the making). Davison doesn’t want to hear what Lemmon has to say, but he and the audience are riveted because, indeed, who among us can truly understand the whole truth behind a situation unless we look closer, are open-minded and, yes, try to imagine walking a bit in the other person’s shoes? This is one of the year’s best films.

Note: Modified slightely from my journal entry written for Ed Collier’s Robert Altman course at Portland State in Spring 2010.


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