Robert Altman is a master of the intersection. The topic of lives tangentially but powerfully interconnected is one which has busied him in many of his projects, including The Player and the most recent (and wonderful) Gosford Park, but nowhere is it more perfectly realised than in this 3 hour long reel of seemingly random episodes in the existances of over 20 people over a period of no more than two days.

Based on a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, the script assembles an array of characters who are all connected to each other, knowingly or unknowingly, emotionally or pragmatically, deliberately or by chance. The characters are as diverse as the life of a major city can allow them to be: a party clown, a painter, a homemaker, a diner waitress, a cop, a makeup artist, a young mother operating a sex line from her domestic telephone, a pool cleaner and many more. All these people have in common is that they live in Los Angeles, and all of them are either affected by or a are at least aware of two things: an overhead spraying operation against a Medfly infestation, and an earthquake.

On this impluasibly vast canvas Altman (who wrote as well as directed) paints a complex and detailed, gentle and poignant picture of life as it exists, less in the realm of the individual and more in the realm of the relationship. Coincidences, chance occurences, brief encounters and acquaintances act and interact in an ever shifting, plotless miasma of consequence. For this is the most delicate of all the master strokes in this movie - every seemigly random, unimportant action or observation has a consequence. More awe inspiring still is the fact that having watched the movie through, one is left not with a feeling of abrupt info clips, but with a prevasive and powerful impression of the interconnectedness and interdependance of all things.

It's always hard to talk about Altman, though people often try. Of all his films that I've seen this is the hardest one to explain, to relay an impression of. Upon leaving the theatre one can't help but feel that the plotline of the film was told not throuh the normal media of picture and dialogue, but through some kind of non verbal interaction between you as the viewer and the characters in the movie, as well as the city itself, in their roles as viweres of the other characters in their turns. If this sounds bizarre and unsettling, it is. And this is no easy movie - death, lies, betrayals are everpresent. Still, when all is said and done this is a feel-good movie - maybe because on that other, new and strange level of communication, Altman actually manages to say something which transcends the actions and words of his character as they appear on screen.

A final word on craftsmanship. I don't know what it is that Altman has that gets such devinely perfect preformances from his actors, but something there is - not one false note, not a single jarring tone are evident anywhere in the cast. Although visually not a spectacular movie, nevertheless the visual texts it presents are rich and influential, in many cases contribuing a visual context which goes a long way towards reinforcing the other relationships. The dialogue is as diverse and everchanging as the cast of characters, and the sense of place and cultural unity is a powerful tool in bringing so many different lives into one thematic fold.


Directed by Robert Altman, released in 1993. Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt on a basis of short stories by Raymond Carver. Partial cast list:

Andie MacDowell - Ann Finnigan
Bruce Davison - Howard Finnigan
Jack Lemmon - Paul Finnigan
Julianne Moore - Marian Wyman
Matthew Modine - Dr. Ralph Wyman
Anne Archer - Claire Kane
Fred Ward - Stuart Kane
Jennifer Jason Leigh - Lois Kaiser
Chris Penn - Jerry Kaiser
Joseph C. Hopkins - Joe Kaiser
Josette Maccario - Josette Kaiser
Lili Taylor - Honey Bush
Robert Downey Jr. - Bill Bush
Madeleine Stowe - Sherri Shepard
Tim Robbins - Gene Shepard
Lily Tomlin - Doreen Piggot
Tom Waits - Earl Piggot
Frances McDormand - Betty Weathers
Peter Gallagher - Stormy Weathers
Jarrett Lennon - Chad Weathers
Annie Ross - Tess Trainer
Lori Singer - Zoe Trainer
Lyle Lovett - Andy Bitkower

The Raymond Carver stories that inspired Robert Altman's fascinating film, Short Cuts appeared in various places at various times, each documenting moments in the lives of people in the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, with the movie out on the big screen, they were collected for the first time in one place, a slender volume with an introduction by Altman. While the stories span Carver's career, the ones most central (and recognizable) in the movie come from his earlier work. All demonstrate the minimalism for which the author became known, sparse depictions of detached people leading lives of quiet desperation.

"Will You Be Quiet Please?" "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "They're Not Your Husband" all concern relationship difficulties, brought about by diverse circumstances. These stories form the backbone of the cinematic Short Cuts, and will be most recognizable to viewers of the film. "So Much Water..." involves a group of men who find a dead body on a fishing trip. They choose to complete their planned trip before reporting the corpse to the police. These actions have consequences for one man's marriage. His wife struggles with the meaning of her husband's decision. The disconnection, the sense of not knowing people or ourselves, of never understanding motives, runs throughout these stories.

"Neighbors" has one couple asking another to look after their house. The house-sitters begin taking an increasingly voyeuristic pleasure in their task, until they find themselves locked out, with private possessions in their hands and their tasks unfulfilled. In this case, their activities in the neighbors' house appear to have no connection with the protagonists' lives or assumed ethical beliefs. "'Maybe they won't come back,'" she says, "and was at once astonished at her words" (19).

"Vitamins," perhaps the oddest tale in the collection, takes us through several kinds of personal and sexual miscommunication in the lives of Patti, who sells vitamins, and her husband, who relates the story. A colleague, Shiela comes onto Patti; when Patti rebuffs her, Sheila wanders out of everyone's lives. The narrator goes out with a woman named Donna. They engage each other affectionately in a club, and then face a crude sexual proposition. When they leave, the reader overhears the following conversation:

"Look, Donna, don't get on a downer because of this. I'm sorry it happened," I said.

"I could of used the money," Donna said. "That's what I was thinking." (40)

"Jerry and Molly and Sam" involves a beleaguered but not entirely admirable man who tries to get rid of his family's rather dim-witted dog. He then regrets his decision. "Collectors" features an odd visit from a serviceman, and very few signs to indicate what we're supposed to take from the encounter. "Tell the Women We're Going" has long-time friends Bill and Jerry go off to cheat on their spouses-- or so Bill thinks. Jerry has decidedly more disturbing plans. Again, we receive only minimal clues to his motivation, and no indication of what consequences he will face. Bill, we're told, "never knew what Jerry wanted"(154). Carver leaves us to ponder the same question.

The book concludes with "Lemonade," a story in poetic form. A man reflects on his son's death, helicopters, lemonade, and the problem of first causes.

Short Cuts presents believable, everyday people in a strong, if sparse style. You won't likely (for the most part) experience strong emotion. Carver trades in moments, viewed through quiet detachment. Short Cuts serves as an introduction to his influential work, part of the chain linking Ernest Hemingway and Denis Johnson. The stories may be sought out by fans of the film, though they should know that Altman only loosely adapted the material, and wrought substantial changes.

Some alterations come about because of the shift in genre, and the blending of stories. The high school teacher from Carver's "Will You Be Quiet, Please" becomes the doctor from "A Small, Good Thing," while Doreen from "They're Not Your Husband" drives through "...Quiet..." long enough to set the plot in motion. A key incident from "Vitamins" occurs in the film, but to a different set of characters and as part of an entirely different tale. The crude customers from Doreen's story become the fishermen of "So Much Water So Close to Home," and so forth.

Some of the film's most memorable elements do not derive from the source material at all. Carver's Carol (called Lois in the film) from "Tell the Women We're Going" does not work in the phone sex trade, though that becomes a key, problematic element in movie. Both the clown and the cellist, important players in the movie, are original creations.

Altman's Los Angeles characters have been more exotified than Carver's northwesterners. Both book and film, however, peak in on plausible lives. Both eschew obvious trappings of genre, and both should be sought out, if only as an uncomfortable respite from the noisy, glitzy spectacle of mainstream popular culture.

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