Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player – released in 1992 – signalled the start of a late-career renaissance for the director that continued for 14 years until 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion, the last film he made before his death. As with 1975’s Nashville and 1978’s A Wedding, Altman employed a large ensemble cast which was supplemented by appearances of more than 50 actors playing themselves, and his coruscating attack on the industry that shunned him for a decade was celebrated throughout Hollywood. He utilised a large cast – albeit without the cameos – the following year too, with the vastly more ambitious and thoughtful Short Cuts.
Big ensemble casts featured in several of Altman’s films subsequently: Prêt-à-Porter, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and the aforementioned Prairie all include a large number of famous faces, and the presence of a multitude of actors has thus become one of the defining features of the director’s career. Many actors wanted to work with Altman because of his status as a maverick, which he earned as a result of his anti-genre work in the late 60s and 1970s (the least said about the 1980s the better, as Altman became persona non grata following the perceived box office failure of Popeye), but another primary attraction was his passion for improvisation and collaboration in order to develop his characters during production.
Short Cuts, very-loosely based on nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, makes excellent use of the combined talent of its cast. Though the relevant stories by Carver were set in the Pacific Northwest, Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt use Los Angeles as the backdrop, and their screenplay follows 22 different characters as they go about their lives and occasionally cross paths under the California haze. Two of the stories are more faithful to the Carver originals, whereas others just employ certain characters as a jumping-off point for something new entirely. One story Altman and Barhydt wrote completely from scratch. At just under three hours, it’s a thorough, emotionally-rich and thoughtful drama that explores life, work, love, infidelity, alcoholism, parental relationships, partying and death, illustrating how chance and access to facts (or the lack thereof) can shape people’s lives for the better or – more often – for the worse.
The characters are linked in the following ways: Dr Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore) attend a concert featuring cellist Zoe Trainer (Lori Singer) with friends Claire Kane (Anne Archer), a children’s party clown, and her husband Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), an unemployed man who fishes in his spare time. Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) is married to cheating cop Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand). Betty is going through the process of divorcing helicopter pilot Stormy (Peter Gallagher) and is also seeing another man named Wally. Waitress Doreen Pigott (Lily Tomlin) is married to an alcoholic limo driver called Earl (Tom Waits). Stuart and his friends Gordon Johnson (Buck Henry) and Vern Miller (Huey Lewis) treat Doreen disrespectfully in her diner before going on a fishing trip where they discover the dead body of a young woman floating in the river.
Doreen accidentally hits eight-year-old Casey Finnegan (Zack Cassidy) with her car as he makes his way to school. Casey’s is treated at the hospital by Ralph. Casey’s mother Ann (Andie MacDowell) orders a cake for her son’s upcoming birthday from baker Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), and Casey’s father Howard (Bruce Davison) – a TV presenter – is re-united with his estranged father Paul (Jack Lemmon). Howard and Ann’s pool cleaner is Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn), whose wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a phone sex operator. Jerry also cleans a pool owned by Zoe and her mother Tess Trainer (Annie Ross), a jazz singer who lives next door to the Finnegans. Tess performs in a club which Earl regularly visits. Also visiting the venue are make-up artist Bill Bush (Robert Downey, Jr) and his wife Honey Piggot Bush (Lili Taylor). Bill and Honey are friends with Jerry and Lois Kaiser.
As the film progresses these stories form a finely-spun web, and the dramatic tension in all of them gradually increases. The pressure is raised and eventually in all cases we arrive at some kind of breaking point: a mix of death, revelation, argument, confrontation, violence and reconciliation. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the way that Altman skillfully weaves together this myriad of glimpses into so many different lives. There are lots of minor and major interactions in addition to those listed above, and many of the characters are unaware of any significance as their paths briefly cross. As audience members we are in a privileged position, in possession of a great many facts that are unknown to the characters, which often makes the sudden appearance of Characters X and Y in the same frame seem far more important than it actually is.
Altman links some of the stories together thematically. Infidelity, for example, is something that is repeatedly seen or referred to. Premature death is another connection, and then there are more subtle tropes throughout the film, such as the use of make-up or the presence of television. There is abundant loneliness, frustration and neglect. Even the wildly disparate and unusual selection of occupations the characters have – pool cleaner, baker, TV personality, pilot, jazz singer, phone sex operator, painter, waitress, limo driver, clown, doctor, cop, make-up artist – seems to link them all together, highlighting the influence of chance and the seemingly random choices they have made earlier in their lives that have led them to these particular careers.
The movie is bookended by two city-wide occurrences – the nighttime spraying of medflies by a fleet of helicopters at the start of the film and an earthquake at the end – during which we see the reactions of most of the cast members to the events. Altman also uses colour and other visual echoes to link the stories together and employs diegetic music – particularly the live performances of jazz singer Tess – as a bridge from one scene to the next. The editing of Short Cuts by Altman, Geraldine Peroni and Suzy Elminger and the timing of the transitions is nothing short of masterful. (A great example of this is given by Jonathan Rosenbaum here: ‘When MacDowell calls Davison at his TV studio to tell him about their son’s accident, and he says he’ll call the hospital, an ambulance coincidentally appears on a nearby TV monitor; the sound of this siren carries over to a shot of MacDowell with her son waiting for an ambulance to arrive, then carries over to Waits in a trailer watching the TV ambulance and hearing a TV voice-over say, “Accidents happen every day”’.)
Altman’s group of characters invariably make or have made impulsive and bad decisions, and as viewers with more facts at our disposal we can only watch in horror as the unenlightened characters choose option (a) over option (b). Lovett’s baker Andy Bitkower would never make nuisance calls to the Finnegans if he knew their son was in intensive care. Similarly Doreen would not allow Casey Finnegan to walk home after hitting him with her car if she knew he would end up in hospital afterwards (despite the boy’s understandable protestations that he is not allowed to get into cars with strangers). Housewife Ann will surely regret her decision not to drive Casey to school for the rest of her life. What possesses Stuart Kane to carry on fishing with his buddies when they are fully aware a dead body lies nearby, and would he act differently if he knew the effect it would have on the way he is seen by his wife Claire? Would Paul have done things differently in the past if he knew it would lead to estrangement from his close family? Would Marian have cheated on Ralph? Would Tess act differently if she knew her alcohol-induced detatchment would lead to tragic events involving her daughter? Would Lois take a different job if she knew her line of work would increase her husband’s sexual frustration to such a dangerous state? Would Stormy tear apart Betty’s house if he knew their son Chad (Jarrett Lennon) would be with Betty when she discovered the mess? Short Cuts asks more questions than it answers, and many of the incidents and conversations shown will have serious repercussions in the future lives of the characters. The earthquake may signal the end of the film but the aftershocks will continue to be felt long after the credits roll.
Nearly a fifth of the cast members are musicians, but this is not a musical. Lovett, Waits, Ross and Lewis are all singers first and foremost but are given prominent roles, and Waits in particular manages to hold his own here amidst all the serious acting talent. Perhaps Altman was after a particular emotional quality he associated closely with singers. He clearly believed the confidence that comes with being front and centre on a musical stage is perfectly suited to a melodrama like this. The casting of singers in films is hardly new, but often directors will only employ one at most; a slight gamble taken on a Sinatra or a Timberlake perhaps. Altman wasn’t exactly leaping into the unknown here – Lovett appeared in The Player and Waits had plenty of earlier acting experience – but it’s rare to see such a degree of faith placed in this way.
It feels a very even, fair film, with confidence evident in the strength of all of the stories and all of the actors as Altman affords them an equal amount of screen time. The non-singing remainder of the cast is a remarkably talented group. The standout performers include Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon (in motormouth monologue mode) and Lily Tomlin, and there are only a few duff moments across the entire three hour running time. Unfortunately a crucial scene involving Bitkower and the Finnegans is let down somewhat by Andie MacDowell’s inability to truly show rage and frustration, and the readiness with which Ann and Howard accept Bitkower’s chastened apology, explanation of stress and subsequent kindness grates a little, too. But gripes like this are few and far between: when viewed as a whole, the film is a testament to the improvisational talents of those involved.
The influence of Altman, and Short Cuts in particular, on Paul Thomas Anderson cannot be understated. Boogie Nights recalls Altman’s ensemble work, but it is Magnolia – Anderson’s sprawling take on the lives of a range of LA characters who work across a variety of unusual sectors – where the influence is most apparent. It even includes a bizarre frog storm in a sequence that directly references the earthquake and helicopter spraying of Altman’s film. Anderson has expanded and honed his own stylistic range considerably with subsequent films that focus on just two or three main characters, such as Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master, but there’s a strong feeling of a baton being passed when looking at the careers of the two directors during the 1990s and early 2000s, especially as those latter three films also recall Altman’s anti-genre films of the 1960s and 1970s. Anderson worked as a standby director on A Prairie Home Companion in case leukemia prevented the older man from completing the film, and There Will Be Blood is actually dedicated to Altman, who died while Anderson was cutting the movie.
If Robert Altman felt like he had anything to prove to anyone after his incredible post-summer of love run – which lasted over a decade – then he certainly made a point when he returned in the 1990s. During his decade in the wilderness, the director actually received two nominations for the Palm D’Or (for 1985’s Fool For Love and his segment in 1987’s Aria), but this masks the fact that he was cast aside by the industry following the relative lack of success for Popeye and mostly worked on TV movies and adaptations of stage plays. The 1990s saw a shift in focus with the independent spirit firmly back en vogue, and this allowed Altman to serve two reminders of his considerable worth with The Player and Short Cuts, despite the fact that the length and subject matter meant small returns at the box office. Short Cuts earned Altman a nomination for Best Director (he had been nominated the previous year for The Player) but he lost out to Steven Spielberg, who picked up the award for Schindler’s List.
Looking at the nominations for Best Picture that year, it seems strange now that The Fugitive received a nod ahead of Short Cuts, even allowing for the fact that the Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones vehicle is itself a superior and enjoyable thriller. But Short Cuts feels decidedly at odds with conventional cinema, out of step and a little hard to digest on occasion, a slice of free jazz mostly in competition against vibrant but formulaic pop, or a satisfying banquet in an era of quick fix Big Kahuna burgers. The uneasy mood of the film resonates and the core drunken, frustrated sadness at its heart is unlike any other film of its time. It’s a throwback of sorts, recalling the freewheeling 70s when stories and characters were the most important elements of a movie, and ambition was funded more often than not. Though a couple of the short cuts are a little contrived it is one of Altman’s finest, and the three hours never feels like a chore. He once said ‘admire me not for how I succeed, not for how “good” the films are, but for the fact that I keep going back and jumping off the cliff’. Thankfully talented directors like Paul Thomas Anderson took notes along the way and are currently creating the kind of legacy Altman deserves.
Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt, Raymond Carver
Starring: Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Matthew Modine, Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Buck Henry, Julianne Moore, Huey Lewis, Tom Waits, Lily Tomlin, Zane Cassidy, Lyle Lovett, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Lori Singer, Frances McDormand, Annie Ross, Peter Gallagher, Jarrett Lennon
Running Time: 188 minutes