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Revisiting Hours: ‘Short Cuts,’ Altman and the Anti-‘Life Itself’

This week’s column looks back at Robert Altman’s epic Angeleno character study that set the template for how to do we’re-all-connected dramas right

Lily Tomlion and Tom Waits in Robert Altman's ensemble drama 'Short Cuts.'

Fine Line Features

Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Tim Grierson on Robert Altman’s 1993 celebrity-ensemble feel-bad masterpiece Short Cuts.

Because movies are a global art form, it’s natural that some filmmakers get interested in how stories connect us as human beings. (Yawn.) Much like life itself, which can sometimes be a medley of unrelated events that ultimately form a grand symphony (hoo boy), the movie-going experience brings strangers together in the dark watching the same screen, dreaming the same collective dream. (Give. Us. A. Break.)

If that above description about life and movies makes you want to projectile vomit, then you’re probably not the sort of person who should see Life Itself, this weekend’s critically derided melodrama about love and loss told from the perspective of several interlocking characters. Every few years, Hollywood foists one of these soggy bags of melodrama on us: Collateral Beauty, Babel, Crash (the Oscar-winning one). Sure, we’re all connected in cosmic ways we can’t always discern, but do these films always have to be so smug, programmatic and schmaltzy that they tempt sane viewers to avoid all human contact the rest of their days?

In other words, why can’t they be more like Short Cuts?

Celebrating its 25th anniversary next month, Robert Altman’s raucous, sobering mosaic can be seen as an extension of a storytelling style he’d pursued earlier in his career — sometimes with great success (his 1970s bellwether Nashville), other times less so (see: 1978’s A Wedding). The director had a penchant for working on a broad canvas, looking at a community through its disparate individuals, getting off on the unexpected magnetic pull that brings mismatched souls into the same orbit. But he did it without being cloying — he was enamored by humanity while remaining deeply, brutally realistic about people’s potential for awfulness. As a portrait of non-glamorous Los Angeles, Short Cuts is a landmark. As a guide for how to craft a multi-strand, big-swing character drama, it’s irreplaceable.

The adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories came about through the kind of fortuitous timing that’s often a hallmark of lesser large-canvas films. After a decade toiling away in theater and no-budget films, Altman reinvigorated himself commercially and critically with 1992’s The Player, a smackdown of Hollywood’s poisonous ecosystem and soulless executives. As a reward for thumbing his nose at the powers that be, the iconoclast was invited back to the table, finally able to secure financing for a passion project that combined characters from the celebrated author’s slim, haunting prose and poems into one expansive narrative.

But passion isn’t the same thing as reverence. “This was not a rendition of Raymond Carver’s work,” the director once said of the film. “This was inspired by Raymond Carver, this was of him. The stories that we took were not specific Carver stories, they were instances in his stories. They were attitudes that [he] didn’t write about but I felt he would have. There is no purity there.”

That lack of purity extended to Altman’s decision to move the events from the writer’s Pacific Northwest to the shitty jazz clubs, mediocre diners and drab eyesores of Los Angeles. In this world, the sight of a random celebrity such as Alex Trebek is as likely as a car hitting a boy running across the street. But rather than being awed by the confluence of events — agog over the sheer strangeness of life — the film takes the same gruff attitude toward coincidence and fate that the rest of us do. The characters are too self-absorbed, fumbling through their own problems, to care about the higher meanings. There are no cosmic revelations — no magical narrative tricks to save these people from themselves. When Lily Tomlin’s frazzled waitress Doreen — the woman who hits the boy, never knowing that the accident will eventually lead to his death — tells her limo-driver husband Earl (Tom Waits), relieved, “Everything could have changed, our whole lives could have changed,” his grumbling response is, “Yeah, well, I wish something would come along and change our life.”

Altman’s Los Angeles is very white — the 22 lead actors are all Caucasian — and hardly an accurate demographic breakdown of America’s second-biggest city. But rather than having that be a failing, Short Cuts uses it as another way to illustrate how closed-off these people are from life around them. Wife and mother Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) spends her days at home as a phone-sex operator; her increasingly jealous and emasculated husband Jerry (Chris Penn) looking on, silently fuming. (Before we had the word “cuck,” this character was its living embodiment.) The self-important TV commentator (Bruce Davison) and the exacting baker (Lyle Lovett) live in the same town as the pretentious painter (Julianne Moore) and the pathetic senior citizen (Jack Lemmon). When anything unpleasant enters these people’s world — illness or death or race or someone from a different economic class — these individuals rarely find something inspiring or life-affirming within themselves. Altman doesn’t try to give us a poetic rendering of metropolitan life; he goes for blunt truth and the telling detail. When the smug, well-off TV commentator sees Jerry, who happens to be his pool-cleaner, he asks glibly, “How goes the war?” Jerry’s defeated working-class answer speaks volumes: “Bad guys are winning, sir.”

Such a description risks positioning this epic character(s) study as a bilious snapshot of a bunch of miserable SOBs. And yet, over its three hours, the film turns into a rather glorious acknowledgement of our shared foibles and crumpled aspirations — how we’re all living pretend versions of the better life we can’t quite attain. Anne Archer’s Claire is a depressed party clown who finds herself inexorably drawn to the fate of a dead woman her unemployed husband (Fred Ward) discovered while drinking and fishing with his buddies. A blowhard cop (Tim Robbins) tries to hold onto the ridiculous notion that he looks good in his outfit to push back the malaise of domesticity that has descended upon him. A snobby doctor (Matthew Modine) can’t rest until he proves that his wife (Moore) doesn’t really love him. These people are too messy, too trapped in their own foolishness, to be detestable. Nothing you could think about them would be worse than what they know about themselves.

Of course, Altman loved messes. His films were known for their improvisational flair, and he lived to upend genre expectations and defy the rule that a good movie had to have a happy ending. Short Cuts is full of fools and tragic cases — suicides, murders and corpses reside alongside penis jokes, sight gags and happy drunks. But where other films of its ilk strain for significance, Altman imbues his movie with an almost jazzy irreverence. (It may be three hours long, but legend has it that Altman playfully included a line about halfway through the film explaining what a diuretic is — “It makes him urinate more” — to torture those in the audience with weak bladders.)

The sense of play carried over to his performers, some of whom were capping magnificent careers, while others were just getting started. Short Cuts marked the beginning of a series of remarkable portrayals for Julianne Moore that continued with Vanya on 42nd Street and Safe, although she was perhaps never as enigmatically unnerving as she was here playing a woman who loves tormenting her square husband. On the other end of the spectrum, Hollywood legends Buck Henry and Lemmon folded gracefully into the ensemble, while 1990s critics’ darlings like Leigh, Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor did some of their best work with one of the giants of American filmmaking.

Along the way, Altman corresponded with poet and writer Tess Gallagher, who was married to Carver before he died in 1988 at the age of 50. Perhaps as a tribute, the director invented a character of a brassy jazz singer (real-life singer Annie Ross) whom he named Tess. Gallagher loved the homage. “I like the toughness about her,” Gallagher told biographer Mitchell Zuckoff. “It says you have to be tough for life. Altman’s right. You do have to have a good amount of stamina. You have to have your compassionate nature in hand but there’s a way in which you also have to stand up to life.”

There’s nothing cutesy about this look at the not-so-quiet lives of desperate people, no convoluted plot twists or orchestrated grand themes. But its rough, loving depiction of struggle is full of the kind of beautiful humanism that emerges when you strip away artifice and self-regard and simply observe how everyday life really feels. Little wonder that Altman acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson made the best post-Short Cuts large-canvas drama with Magnolia, learning from his idol how to be compassionate and tough simultaneously.

Besides, movies don’t need emotional manipulation or rank sentimentality — life itself has a way of providing that. Watch Short Cuts now and you feel how Los Angeles has changed in the last three decades, its middle-class mostly decimated. And you note who in the cast has left us: Lemmon died in 2001; Penn died five years later; and then Altman died 10 months after that. This is a movie full of ghosts, but it also remains full of life.

Raymond Carver was once asked about how he writes. “I just listen to voices in my head, a few good voices,” he said. “I just seem to home in on something that’s direct, truthful, straightforward and, I hope lyrical, and I just take it where it goes.” With Short Cuts, Altman, a fellow truth-teller, added his voice to Carver’s to craft a masterpiece. That’s life.

Previously: MacGruber

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