Part of the miracle of Robert Altman's triumphantly fierce, funny, moving and innovative Short Cuts is that you can't get this movie out of your head. You keep playing it back to savor its formula-smashing audacity, its peerless performances and its cleareyed view of blasted lives. Altman weaves nine Raymond Carver short stories (plus one narrative poem) and 22 principal characters into 189 compulsively watchable minutes that leave you wrung out emotionally but still hungry for more. Another key factor in making Short Cuts a milestone is Altman's stubborn conviction that it's more fun for audiences to think through a movie than to just sit through it.
In case you haven't noticed, Altman is on a roll. At 68, the director of such landmarks as M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville is no longer the boxoffice pariah he became after 1980's Popeye. Last year's surprise hit The Player -- a slashing satire of Hollywood as a metaphor for cultural bankruptcy -- brought Altman back. But it didn't mellow him. Having crafted the best picture of 1992 by blithely biting the hand that fed him, he now gives us the movie event of the year -- one that defines an era -- by making a film a player wouldn't risk.
Altman had to go the independent route to scrounge up the modest $12 million needed to make Short Cuts. Carver, who died of lung cancer at 50 in 1988, wrote stories that expressed the desperation of ordinary people in plain, blunt language. His endings weren't happy but random and brutal. In Carver, the major studios saw disaster. But Altman saw a kindred spirit and the chance to perfect the overlapping plots he'd been experimenting with since Nashville. Carver's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, knew the fit was right and gave the necessary go-ahead.
But don't mistake Short Cuts for a cowed tribute to Carver. Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt (a notable team on Tanner '88) make startling additions, including the image of helicopters' spraying medflies that opens the film and the earthquake that ends it. Stories that span decades are compressed into four days, and the setting shifts from Carver's Pacific Northwest to suburban California. But purists needn't cry foul. This is not the glamour world of The Player but neighborhoods -- from Glendale to Downey -- where people worry about keeping jobs and getting cars started. Even when Altman invents new characters or changes names and motivations, he stays true to Carver's flinty spirit.
Short Cuts is an intimate epic, but every frame of this wide-screen film -- spectacularly shot by Walt Lloyd -- is packed with revealing details. Take an early scene in which Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison), a news anchor on local television, sits up in bed with his wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), to watch his editorial on the medfly. For just a beat, we notice Ann pick up a magazine -- you catch the slight out of the corner of your eye. But in that split second, Altman offers a miniportrait of a marriage. You recall it later, when the couple's young son, Casey (Zane Cassidy), is hit by a car and their relationship is truly tested.
Buoyed by the whiplash editing of Geraldine Peroni, the film resonates with such moments. It's part of Altman's plan to involve us in putting the pieces together. Some characters interact; others merely brush by one another. But all share feelings of love, betrayal and anger.
While the choppers roar overhead, the camera takes us into the home of Lois Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is selling phone sex while diapering her baby. "My panties are sooo wet," she tells the sucker on the line. Though the scene is profanely funny and strikingly acted by Leigh, you feel a distinct chill. Lois' poolcleaner husband, Jerry (Chris Penn), mutely accepts the talk of hard cocks and hot clits; he knows it helps pay bills. But no way has he adjusted to it.
Sherri Shepard (Madeleine Stowe) hears the medfly choppers and yells at her cop husband, Gene (Tim Robbins in a priceless comic turn), about the toxic effect on their three kids. "Don't get environmental on me," says Gene, who'd rather be out banging Betty Weathers (a terrific Frances McDormand). Betty has her own problems with her pilot ex-husband, Stormy (Peter Gallagher, first-rate, as usual). After spraying the medflies, Stormy shows up at Betty's house and calmly chain-saws everything inside but his mother's clock and his son's TV.
Short Cuts exposes America as one big house divided. Jazz singer Tess Trainer (the great Annie Ross) lives with her cellist daughter, Zoe (Lori Singer), but it's not just music that separates them. It's Tess' bitterness about Zoe's junkie father, which pours out of her in acid versions of songs by Doc Pomus, Elvis Costello and Bono and the Edge that underscore the film's theme of alienation.
Most poignant of all are the alcoholic Piggots -- Doreen (Lily Tomlin), a waitress, and husband Earl (Tom Waits), a chauffeur who may have molested Doreen's daughter, Honey (Lily Taylor). Honey is married to Bill Bush (Robert Downey Jr.), a makeup artist who paints bruises on his wife for practice. For Doreen and Earl -- Tomlin and Waits are sensational -- booze is the dangerous game that helps them duck harsh truths.
It's Doreen's car that accidentally knocks down the TV anchor's son. Fate is a staple of Carver's work, as is the effort to rise above it. In the hospital, the boy fights for his life as Howard is disturbed by the return of his estranged father, Paul Finnigan (Jack Lemmon in peak form), who pathetically tries to explain away his role in the accident that nearly killed Howard as a child.
Howard and Ann are also plagued by vicious calls from Andy Bitkower (a mesmerizing Lyle Lovett), a lonely baker who becomes an unlikely source of comfort. Altman honors the Carver story "A Small, Good Thing" by finding its heart without stooping to sentiment or uplift.
Another classic Carver story, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" provides a star-making showcase for Julianne Moore as Marian, the artist wife of Casey's doctor, Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine). In a burst of repressed feeling, Marian lets her jealous husband have it with a confession of infidelity. That she tells the story naked from the waist down, oblivious to her full pubic glory, provides the scene with an unnerving context that will be much discussed.
Earlier, Marian commented that her paintings are about "seeing and the responsibility that comes with it." It's a throwaway line and, typical of Altman, is crucial to the Carver story "So Much Water So Close to Home" that anchors the film. Joining the Wymans for dinner are Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), an out-of-work salesman, and his wife, Claire (a never-better Anne Archer), a clown-for-hire at children's parties. Stuart brings some trout he had caught the day before on a fishing trip that has driven a permanent wedge into his marriage.
Stuart and his pals Gordon (Buck Henry) and Vern (Huey Lewis) had just walked four hours to their favorite fishing spot when Vern, pissing in the stream, found his urine trickling on the beautiful and dead body of a girl. It's only after Stuart comes home and makes love to Claire that he tells her how he and his friends made the decision to leave the body in the water for another day and keep fishing. She was dead, wasn't she?
Claire is shattered; she attends the funeral of the girl but can't salve her conscience. At least she has one. In Short Cuts, otherwise decent people can't communicate their feelings because they've forgotten how to feel. It's Altman's dark mirror on a world not hard to recognize as our own. With the help of a superlative cast, Altman explores the folly and ferocity of human behavior. He puts a buoyant spin on these stories -- there's no heavy moralizing or character gridlock -- but the cumulative effect is devastating. Short Cuts is vital entertainment in which Altman makes screen history by richly serving Carver, the audience and his own rebel spirit. You exit feeling that the director once written off as yesterday's renegade is just revving up.
You don't have to tell me what you think of the picture, though a little common politeness wouldn't hurt as you leave." That's Robert Altman tweaking a small audience of friends and invited guests before showing an unfinished rough version of Short Cuts last spring at his New York editing room. The toilet, he instructs us, is behind the screen, and we'd be wise to turn on the light first since he's left the window open, and it's an eight-floor drop. Altman grins wickedly when I suggest the fall might be fitting punishment for those who'd rather heed nature's call and piss away part of the film he calls "the best work I've done."
Altman doesn't like criticism of his films, implied or otherwise. He's still bristling from the remarks of a friend of his wife's who had griped, as others will after her, that Short Cuts is "long and confusing." So these private focus groups are a mystery. What does he get out of them? And do they have any effect on the final product? To find out, I cadged my way into four of them. It's not what you'd expect -- nothing with Altman ever is.
Watching Altman watching others watch an Altman movie is disconcerting at first. While most of us squirm on folding stools, the king of this hill sits enthroned on an overstuffed chair in the rear, attended by assistants who take down his whispered notes and offer refreshments. It seems cushy, yet Altman is anxious. "My fear," he says, "is that people will give up after an hour."
Not these people. Such guests as Lauren Bacall, Jonathan Demme and playwright Tony Kushner, whose prizewinning Angels in America will be filmed by Altman, are colleagues and pals. Yet Altman balks at the suggestion that he's preaching to the choir. "I also purposely invite people that I know are picky -- Gore Vidal, Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols," he says. "The thing is not to listen to them anyway." Then why the screenings? "I'm watching the temperature of the room. I know when people get restless. I know when I'm embarrassed seeing a scene through their eyes."
At each screening, Altman stays alert to every laugh or hushed silence. Body language, he says, lets him know when "I'm hitting the audience on the head too hard." An omen arrives when Elaine Kaufman calls from her celebrity-filled restaurant to say, "I haven't heard one negative thing, and the people who come in here are negative about everything."
Altman knows the slams will come, especially from Hollywood players who resent this maverick outsider and his ridicule. No wonder a deserved Oscar for directing eludes him. "If I really don't like a movie, I can't keep my mouth shut," he says, citing Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple and Richard Attenborough's Chaplin. "I get angry because that material can never be done again." His anger can cost him: "I'm going to run into Attenborough or Spielberg, and they'll have read this, and I'm going to be embarrassed to death."
But it's just this willingness to let it rip that invigorates Altman's art and his life. At one screening, a viewer tells Altman that she shares the moral repugnance the Anne Archer character feels for her husband after he finds the dead girl in the water and yet continues to fish. "I don't think the husband did a bad thing," says Altman. "People say to me, 'Oh, you wouldn't do that.' I say, 'I would do that.'" The movie allows for both points of view, which is Altman's purpose: "It is not my business -- nor was it Carver's business -- to moralize about these things. I resent in art the definitive explanation for people's behavior -- there isn't any."
During the months of revisions, Altman never made a trim that didn't come from his own gut instinct. In fact, he usually made additions. "As we started cutting it down," he says sheepishly, "it got worse. So we let it find its own shape." And correctly so. Without time for nuances, Short Cuts could be deconstructed in a few pat phrases -- a true Altman nightmare. He wants to leap into the unknown. If these screenings merely reinforce his trust in us to make the leap with him, they're worth it. Altman even offers what he believes is an ideal response to Short Cuts: "I don't know what that was, but it was right."