Friday, November 19, 2004

Short Cuts Directed by Robert Altman

To argue that Short Cuts sullies the original plots of Raymond Carver’s short stories is to miss the point. Carver wrote about our Kafkaesque world in which humankind is a syncope, playing itself like a broken record – around and around, and always the same few lines. Carver rarely wrote about a specific locale, but it isn’t hard to imagine Los Angeles while reading his stories of deprived decadence. Robert Altman, as outside of Hollywood as American director can be, saw this relation and built a film on top of it. The plots of Carver’s stories are sullied, but the themes are not.

Rather than chop the film into ten 20-minute segments, Altman melds the stories into one continuous narrative; employing his usual Renoir influenced ensemble cast technique. The result is, rather than reaching ten separate climaxes (or anti-climaxes, as they may very well deserved to be called), the film builds and builds in pressure until all threads culminate into one anti-cathartic release. The impact of the individual threads is lost in the milieu, but a portrait of one extremely vacuous city is left in their wake.

Altman’s style of directing (the aforementioned Renoir influenced ensemble cast mixed with improvisation that rests on the dividing line between control and chaos) is spot-on for both the subject matter and the form. The direction allows the film an (and I really hate this word, but it’s a perfect descriptive) organic environ, where the actors truly appear to be inhabitants of Los Angeles. Lines of dialogue spill over and into each other, characters wander through each other’s lives, unaware of the other stories being told, and dirty little secrets boil up from what seemed to be innocuous conversation. Altman’s controlled chaos seems to be the only way to properly handle a three-hour film containing a principal cast of over 25.

Meanwhile, that elephantine cast handles itself beautifully. Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, as the aging, trailer-dwelling couple of “They’re Not Your Husband,” carry themselves with a subdued dignity; constantly speaking of “breaking out” and all the while knowing it will never happen. Julianne Moore is heralded for her much publicized nude scene, but delivers, per usual, a great performance as a pseudo-artistic wife of a rich, highland dwelling surgeon. Chris Penn subtly (!) gives, for my money, his best performance ever. I could go on: Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher – all of them are fantastic. The danger in having such a heavy-weighted cast is that the film can become a lumbering giant, falling under the weight of the talent. Short Cuts avoids this by distributing the weight evenly over the entire cast. There are no lengthy monologues (outside of a single brilliant one by Jack Lemmon.) In the same vein, the film is not told from one single perspective; rather, all the characters share equal spotlight, remaining in the film instead of revolving around a central character. The result is a group snapshot, portraying an entire city rather than a few inhabitants of the city. While that snapshot is a harrowing study of depravity, and therefore difficult to stare at for three hours, it is also a remarkable piece of filmmaking and completely worthy of that three hours.


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