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DVD SAVANT

Short Cuts


Short Cuts
Criterion
1993 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 187 min. / Street Date November 16, 2004 / 39.95
Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Margery Bond, Robert DoQui
Cinematography Walt Lloyd
Production Designer Stephen Altman
Art Direction Jerry Fleming
Film Editors Suzy Elmiger, Geraldine Peroni
Original Music Gavin Friday, Mark Isham
Written by Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt from writings by Raymond Carver
Produced by Cary Brokaw
Directed by Robert Altman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Flush from the success of The Player, maverick director Robert Altman wasted no time in embracing more idiosyncratic movie material. He immediately tackled the job of reshaping a stack of moody short stories into a larger tapestry with a couple of dozen leading players, something like, you know, a classic Robert Altman film. Actually, Altman's famous ensemble films tended to gather a lot of kooky characters around some major event and let them go off on various tangents. Short Cuts is neither improvised nor random, but a careful interweaving of a several unrelated tales.

Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt do their darndest to replicate the capricious nature of Raymond Carver's short stories; we never know whether a particular incident will become central to the narrative, or just be ignored. The film starts and ends with quintessential Los Angeles events, Malathion spraying for the Medfly and a heavy-duty earthquake of the kind that takes Angelenos by surprise every twenty years or so.

A rough synopsis can only suggest the film's complexity. Waitress Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin) hits a child with her car, and frets when he runs away claiming he's unharmed. The kid then falls into a coma, which sends his parents Ann and Howard Finnigan (Andie MacDowall and Bruce Davison) into a panic that isn't helped when Howard's estranged father Paul (Jack Lemmon) suddenly chooses to come back into their lives. Unemployed salesman Stuart Kane (Fred Ward) and his wife Claire, a children's party clown (Anne Archer) make a dinner date with the Finnegans' doctor Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). Stuart takes off on a fishing trip with two buddies; they find a dead woman's body in the river but wait two days to report it, until they've caught their limit. Phone-sex worker Lois Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doesn't realize her job is having a negative effect on her husband Jerry, a serviceman (Chris Penn) who cleans the pool of night club singer Tess Trainer (Annie Ross), whose daughter Zoe (Lori Singer) plays the cello and is deeply concerned about the Finnegans, her neighbors. Jerry Kaiser is also best friends with a makeup artist, Bill Bush (Robert Downey Jr.) who cheats on his wife Honey (Lili Taylor). Finally, divorced mother Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand) is seeing married policeman Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), much to the consternation of Gene's wife Sherri (Madeleine Stow) and Betty's ex Stormy (Peter Gallagher), who happens to be one of the helicopter pilots spraying Malathion (Peter Gallagher).

The tangles continue. Sherri Shepard is a friend of Marian Wyman. Claire Kane gets her birthday cakes from the same unhappy baker that the Finnegans frequent, Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett). Honey Bush's photos of her husband's gruesome makeups get switched with the snapshots of the dead body in the river taken by Stuart Kane's fishing pals Gordon and Vern (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis). The fishermen also like to stop at Doreen Piggot's cafe to ogle her short waitress dress, much to the consternation of Doreen's alcoholic husband, Earl (Tom Waits).

That mass of relationships explains why the whimsically titled Short Cuts is three hours long. Beautifully crafted, the film interweaves its various subplots without bothering to make the frequent character intersections any more meaningful than the random nature of life itself; the effect is a sprawling mosaic of Los Angeles life, from the unemployeds through the wannabes up to the more successful citizens in their hilltop houses.

To say the characters are richly drawn is an understatement. The talent arrayed here is staggering, and there isn't a poorly cast character in the bunch. Tim Robbins plays an atypically obnoxious cop, while Jennifer Jason Leigh's porn-spouting young mother is certainly disturbing. And one can feel the inner conflict in Anne Archer's disappointed wife, or Frances McDormand's desperate single mother. It's all done without hype or grandstanding for Oscars, and Altman's careful direction plays to the narrative. He avoids showoff effects and overreaching dramatic fireworks of the kind seen in the trashy, mostly false potboiler Magnolia.

It was easy to take potshots at some of Altman's 70s films, many of which (Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians) seemed to be directed by training five telephoto cameramen on a complicated scene, saying 'action,' and trying to stay in focus. In Short Cuts Altman has opted to go for a carefully controlled illusion of random events, as opposed to the disorganized real thing. Cuts do more than just recharge scenes that have run dry. Subtle character reactions are carefully nutured while broader actions, like the Finnegan boy's accident, are covered in unbroken long takes.

There's a lot of sex in the film, both wayward and faithful. In most of the pairings, at least one partner is looking for happiness or fighting boredom. The more unstable characters played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Peter Gallagher and Tim Robbins demonstrate that they're capable of violence, creating an uncomfortable tension. Altman keeps this all on the boil, perhaps showing his own preference through the recurring use of frequent female nudity. The film's success can be measured in the fact that it does indeed play as a series of interlocking short stories, little slices of drama that can change from the absurd to the tragic on a moment's notice, all tied together with smoky jazz music from Annie Ross and the Low Note Quintet.


Criterion's 2-disc DVD set of Short Cuts is almost exhausting in its thoroughness. There is no commentary but Altman is well represented along with many of his stars in a feature-length making of docu. Author Raymond Carver is covered through several shorter docus and a 60 minute audio interview from 1983. There are also a number of deleted scenes and original demo recordings of some of the songs in the movie. One extra shows over sixty graphic concepts for unused marketing campaigns. Finally, there's a specially-printed edition of Short Cuts, Carver's collection of short stories assembled as a companion to the movie.

Short Cuts was also prophetic: Only a few months after its release, Los Angeles was hit by a major earthquake like the one depicted at the end of the movie.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Short Cuts rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Reflections on Short Cuts, a new 25-minute videotaped conversation with Robert Altman and Tim Robbins; Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country, a 90-minute documentary on the making of Short Cuts; Segment from BBC television's Moving Pictures tracing the development of Raymond Carver's short story Jerry, Molly and Sam for the film; Hour-long audio interview with Raymond Carver from 1983; To Write and Keep Kind, a PBS documentary on Carver; 3 Deleted Scenes; marketing trailers and sixty print advertising campaigns; Original song demos by Dr. John; An essay by film critic Michael Wilmington and a guide to the music; Rreprint of Short Cuts, the Vintage Books companion collection of Raymond Carver short stories.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2004


Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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