Friday, October 12, 2012
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Raymond Carver, Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt
Photography: Walt Lloyd
Music: Mark Isham
Editors: Suzy Elmiger, Geraldine Peroni
Cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Zane Cassidy, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Joseph C. Hopkins, Josette Macario, Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Alex Trebek
I think I might be safe in calling Short Cuts the last great Robert Altman picture that Robert Altman ever made—though at least two others by him that came later, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, are worth chasing down for other reasons. But Short Cuts goes further, taking that patented messy style Altman perfected in the '70s, with handfuls of interesting characters, overlapping dialogue, and parallel narratives that operate like string theory alternate universes, occasionally brushing up against one another to ignite little big bangs and new universes, and raising it all a notch higher by dressing it up in the emotional finery of shards and fragments of Raymond Carver stories, transposed to Los Angeles.
It is a tremendous and brave reimagining of Raymond Carver that happens to work very well. The cast is dazzling. The jazzy soundtrack is surprisingly propulsive. It's strange and beautiful and alienating from its first shot, the glorious landscape of Los Angeles seen at night from above, a community united by television, celebrity, helicopters, tony culture, and cars. Into this intrude the fragments of Carver, familiar, haunting, seared into anyone who has read them: the boy who dies before his parents can pick up the birthday cake they ordered for him; the fishermen who find the corpse of a 23-year-old woman who has been raped and murdered, and simply go on fishing until they catch their limit; the man who methodically destroys everything in his estranged wife's home while she is away for the weekend. In the end, I think this turns out to be a great, unexpected match of unique sensibilities, on a par with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg for A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
It's big in the way that Altman likes to go big, with a cast of dozens and some nine or 10 distinct storylines. The screenplay is fine. Each of the stories retains the distinct feel of Carver, moving in powerful sure-footed ways. Altman convincingly adapts Carver's faceless suburbanland to Los Angeles—not hard when you think about it, though the pitfalls are not inconsiderable on the side of going too broad, a feat Altman just barely manages. I think making the story about the boy Casey and the birthday cake the A-story, inasmuch as there is an A-story here, was a particularly canny decision. That one is played exquisitely by all involved: Andie MacDowell (truly not phoning it in for once), Jack Lemmon, even Lyle Lovett, and especially Bruce Davison deliver some really amazing performances. Davison somehow manages an impossible balance of smug entitlement, fatuous self-regard, and raw humanity, and he is good in every scene. It is remarkable.
It is nearly matched by some of the other storylines and performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a mousy housewife with two kids, 6 and 3, who brings money into her family's lower-middle-class household working as a phone-sex prostitute, calmly walking around the house taking care of the baby with a phone crooked against her shoulder and a relentless tick tick tick stream of dirty talk, even finding ways to casually combine both at once ("So big!"). Other times the chatter gets quite explicit: "I'm gonna introduce your dick to my tonsils" (as she checks the temperature of the milk on the inside of her wrist, or some such). Her glowering husband looks on from doorways and across rooms, clearly sickened.
Even the weaker threads have powerful currents, or at least some nice laugh lines. Tim Robbins hams it up as a loutish motorcycle cop, married with three kids, but constantly prowling for women. He tries to explain his mysterious absences from home to his wife with fantastic stories of police work. In one, he is muttering incoherently at the breakfast table, with his three kids there, about a top-secret, highly dangerous case he is working that involves at-risk inner-city youth and C-R-A-C-K. "Whose crack are we talking about, Gene?" says his wife, who as often as not is secretly amused by these stories anyway.
Indeed, the screenplay is very sharp, full of terrific one-liners that register first within peripheral vision. A TV editorialist (that familiar Altman device, this time played by Bruce Davison) signs off, "This is Howard Finnigan with thoughts to make you think." "How goes the war?" he says to his pool man as he hurries off to work. "Bad guys are winning, sir," says the doleful pool man. "Is that your face or your neck threw up?" says an angry waitress to a group of snickering men who have just humiliated her. "You're the one chippin' away at our mansion of love, baby," says the waitress's husband later, when they are fighting.
The waitress's husband is played by Tom Waits. The waitress by Lily Tomlin. The motorcycle cop played by Tim Robbins is having an affair with a woman played by Frances McDormand. The doleful pool man, who is married to the phone-sex prostitute, is played by Chris Penn. His best friend is a wannabe Hollywood makeup artist played by Robert Downey Jr., who is married to a woman played by Lili Taylor, who is the daughter of the couple played by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. All of these performances are base minimum very good, and some of them, and some of the many others as well, are capable of blossoming into incredible moments. It's a brilliant cast.
The narratives move inexorably, rolling over and across one another in a steady tumble, veering around the action in looping circles like a police scanner. These balled-up tangles of narrative are then positioned under canopies at either end of this picture that Altman boldly drapes over them of outsize communal Los Angeles events—to start, a citywide nighttime chemical spraying to deal with a pesky insect pest, the medfly, and at the end an earthquake. It is masterfully done, much slicker and more polished than Nashville, as befits the slick and polished veneer of Los Angeles, a city equally meditated here. It may not ultimately match up to that earlier Altman classic, but I think that's largely only because it lacks the visceral excitement of the feeling of discovery.
Top 20 of 1993
This is a year I remember very fondly for all the movies I saw in the theater. It seemed like every time I went it was a good show; I like runs like that. Ironically, perhaps, I dismissed Schindler's List for the ending, which I saw then as overplayed. Seeing it more recently impressed me about the whole thing a good deal more—I seriously considered #1, but what the fuck, he got his Oscar, he doesn't need me. Fearless and Groundhog Day are more offbeat "concept" movies (each in its way) that are full of surprises, and still work. Manhattan Murder Mystery is the final proof (so far, I believe) that there is undeniable comedy chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. I haven't seen What's Eating Gilbert Grape since it was new, but I remember it still as Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance and one of his best roles. He was also good in This Boy's Life, which I similarly remember (that is, somewhat fuzzily) as the better movie. Madadayo is a weird, pungent, and funny late Kurosawa.
1. Short Cuts
2. Schindler's List
4. Groundhog Day
5. Carlito's Way
6. The Wedding Banquet
7. True Romance
8. Manhattan Murder Mystery
9. This Boy's Life
10. Time Indefinite
11. Menace II Society
12. The Piano
13. Household Saints
15. The War Room
17. What's Eating Gilbert Grape
19. The Fugitive
20. Jurassic Park
Didn't like so much: Farewell My Concubine; The Nightmare Before Christmas; The Secret Garden; Three Colors: Blue; Tombstone
Gaps: Body Snatchers, Germinal, Philadelphia, Sleepless in Seattle, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl