Short Cuts
A Film by Robert Altman


Robert Altman's powerful new film is an insightful commentary on American life in the last decade of the twentieth century. It is filled with humor, but with an undercurrent of anger and pain that takes it well beyond light social satire, into the realm of Evelyn Waugh, Nathaniel West and Jonathan Swift. It is one of the very best of Altman's excellent films, and easily one of the top films of the year.

Altman has always been most interested in the sense of the camera as voyeur. He was influenced by the experiments of the French film-makers of the fifties, in which hand-held cameras, the use of everyday locations (rather than "sets"), and improvised dialogue recorded imperfectly with the shot (not dubbed over, or "looped" later), gave a sense of immediacy, a compelling texture of reality that film had rarely achieved before.

His style is an intense and careful refinement of the best of those ideas combined with the best of the technical proficiency that American film has developed almost to a fault. He uses overlapping, improvised dialogue, where we may often be listening to more than one conversation at a time, as if we might be eavesdropping and have to decide what to pay attention to; unevenly paced follow shots and "point-of-view" camera angles that give us the feel of actually peeking in to the lives of others; editing rhythms and transition shots that disorient us, force us to look around the image and decide where we are, and thus make us a participant in creating the image. Others have employed some of these same techniques - they are by now widely recognized elements of the cinematographic lexicon - but few wield them as skillfully and fearlessly as Altman.

Like great authors, Altman tells his story his own way. If some viewers are confused or alienated or threatened, that is of no more concern to him than it was to Dostoievsky, say, or Melville. Watching an Altman film - like reading a well written book - means "working": becoming a participant in the creative act.

As befits a film-maker whose work has such similarities to literature. Short Cuts is based in a literary work. Unlike many other recent book-to-film adaptations (The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The Remains of the Day) which have been more-or-less straightforward narratives, this film is an interweaving of nine separate short works by a contemporary American writer, Raymond Carver. Set in modern day Los Angeles, the intimate, chaotic style of the stories, and Altman's skill in combining them, serve Altman's purposes perfectly.

Like many professional communicators, Altman is focused on the conundrum of communication: can people actually communicate? Why is what is heard so different from what is said, and what is said so different from what is meant?

The "theme song" of the film is a tune called "Prisoner of Life," a ballad that reflects on the vagaries of fortune: "...one day you own the world/ the next day the world owns you." And in this unpredictable and uncontrollable world, we have only each other.

The poignancy of this interdependence coupled with our human limitations, particularly the sometimes hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking efforts we make to communicate - find points of contact with others - is the emotional pivot of the stories, and the film. This theme is played out in variations specific to each character and each group of characters.

There are the lovers whose only point of contact is their sexuality, who have nothing but platitudes and self-deception to share out of bed. There is the child who is so programmed not to talk to strangers that he can't accept an offer of help when he is hit by a car, and the adult who is so frightened and intimidated that she accepts his assurances that he is all right, even though she has just run into him.

There is the fatherless daughter of Jazz musicians whose only communication is through her cello - music, but the wrong kind, not enough to fill her needs, despite its melancholy beauty. There is the pool cleaner's wife who conducts a phone-sex business as she goes about the tasks of her everyday life - kids and housework - her lurid and explicit language serving her clients as a substitute for real intimacy, and arousing an overwhelming tidal wave of feelings in her brutish, childish husband.

There is the drunk couple, who deplore their own and each others' drinking, who can only find relief from the sordid and painful reality of their failure and poverty in the oblivion of alcohol, but whose love for each other, when their self-judgement and recriminations can be set aside, redeems them, if only for the moment. There is the spiteful baker, who, when confronted with the pain his spite has caused, opens the most tender and loving of hearts to those he has injured.

The purposeful ambiguity of the title reflects the complex levels of meaning in this movie. "Short cuts" are ways of circumventing obstacles. They gain us time - when they actually work out - but we give up some of the fullness of the journey. They are also "cuts" or portions, that contain less than they are represented to contain. They are also small fragments of film.

There are other connotations as well. The sense in which the term is "meant" is for each person to define. There are no resolutions here. People get old, they die, they lose, They have moments of gaiety and joy, and moments of unutterable pain. That's the way it is when you're a prisoner of life.

The performances in this film are marvelous. Altman is legendary as an "actor's director." He gets absolutely authentic performances from his actors by allowing them the freedom to create their characters. Much of the dialogue is improvised, created by the actor-as-character on the spot. Through this process of speaking for the character, spontaneously inventing the character's words and gestures, comes a sense of reality few films achieve.

Here are some of the best actors working in film today, and none of them can be seen "acting." There are so many splendid performances that it is hard to single any out. Well known "stars" and talented "character actors" work with relative "unknowns" in an ensemble that never jars with artificiality or visible technique.

The production values of the film are of a high order. It is professionally made in every detail, yet - unlike much Hollywood product - the production values are not flaunted for their own sake. In many films - The Last of the Mohicans or The Remains of the Day for instance - the elaborately crafted sets and beautiful cinematography almost invite us to try to find a flaw in their perfection, and so distract us from the emotional point the film is trying to make, as a breathtaking view suddenly revealed might make us lose the thread of an intimate and important conversation. In this film the background serves the story well, but doesn't intrude.

This balance of production values and story is another Altman trade-mark. Like the best books, this movie will leave you thinking, looking at your own life and asking questions. You may need to see it more than once. It will leave you a bit amused and a little depressed, and probably more than a little confused. That's the way it is, when you're a prisoner of life.

That's my take on it. What's yours?