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Short Cuts: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // October 18, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 1, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The element that draws most people to an intersecting drama like Robert Altman's Short Cuts can also prove to be its biggest dilemma: the novelty behind how so many different people share connections with one another, the embodiment of the statement: "Small world, huh?" Seeing the ways that disparate individuals come in contact with one another keeps the viewer's mind engaged and curious about what's coming next, but giving these characters too many or too close of those kinds of connections can also lead into doubt over the conceit. It's a tricky balance, especially when trying to give these criss-crossing lives a thematic purpose for doing so, which can potentially twist the premise into a gimmick with a strong, overcompensating message that tries too hard to hold everything together. Director Altman, whose success with personal and interrelated dramas had been responsible for the likes of M*A*S*H and Nashville, soars above such concerns with a vivacious, authentic, and thematically conscientious glimpse at LA's denizens.

Short Cuts spans close to three hours and contains very little that resembles an overarching plot, spreading its focus out among the dozen-plus characters who are eking, surviving, and thriving throughout the city of Los Angeles. The substance, therefore, falls on the nature of their contained subplots, which are too numerous and singular to discuss here without giving things away. Instead, it's easier to run down the types of people bustling around and throughout this adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, which span from a diner waitress (Lily Tomlin) and a phone-sex operating, stay-at-home mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a promiscuous and demeaning police officer (Tim Robbins) and a happily married broadcast journalist (Bruce Davidson), among many others. The unemployed, underemployed, and comfortably employed go about their day-to-day activities while responding to shifting situations, some of which are more serious and momentous than others, from suspicions of infidelity to unexpected deaths.

Captured by the candid and nuanced eye of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Empire Records cinematographer Walt Lloyd, Short Cuts lives up to its name by briskly jumping between the stories of these individuals, never lingering long enough to overstay its welcome. Director Altman's understanding of the distinctiveness of characters gets challenged by the myriad personalities and the brevity of these vignettes, where he not only has to find common threads between clearly different people, but he also needs to illustrate how a few people involved in similar fields across Los Angeles differ greatly from one another. Even though there's a wide variety and number of characters involved, and even though they fill expected archetypal roles -- musicians and club singers, painters and makeup artists, penniless clowns and limo drivers -- Altman ensures that few of them come across as token stereotypes or superficial entities.

Altman's impeccable eye for casting plays a huge part in the success of Short Cuts, to which he zeroes in on the internal needs of these strained individuals and marries them with the right dramatic souls -- and occasional comedic relief -- projected by the actors. Aside from Tim Robbins' dastardly turn as the cheating cop, also easily the most darkly amusing of the bunch, there's a rather even mix of likable sympathy and detrimental flaws among most of the characters, impacted by their individual moral perceptions, past demons, and personal decisions about how they conduct their lives. They enliven and elevate the observational nature of Carver's writings: artists like Julianne Moore's bottled-up Marian underscore the impassioned origins of her paintings; blue-collar workers like Chris Penn's pool guy Jerry lend a haunting observational eye to the nature of his wife's phone-sex profession; and the wide-eyed, growingly frustrated edge of Madeline Stowe as a housewife reveals much in her turn to nude art modeling as fleeting liberation from her husband's unfaithfulness.

In the above paragraph, you might be able to decipher one of the many intersections found in Short Cuts, which Altman handles with a sort of modestly and carefulness that sidesteps most, if not all, of the pretentious tactics that can plague these kinds of productions. It boils down to the overarching end-game behind these numerous connections: there really isn't one. Some are relatives who trade musings about each other's situations, while others are friends who coax out different behaviors and revealing comments with their conversations. And others, still, are simply strangers who ride up alongside one another ... or, at one point in a bakery, just share the same space with one another without any interaction whatsoever. Altman isn't working toward a big collision point that conjoins everything into a bold dramatic expression; instead, these associations serve a much more earnest purpose by purely deepening the context surrounding these characters, underscoring truths about the kind of people they are and justifying others' impressions of them.

Short Cuts also isn't concerned with hitting its audience over the head with social commentary, either, opting instead to let the nature of these individual stories speak for themselves and make their own points without over-inflating their significance. The themes can be pinpointed without Altman preaching about them or straining the credibility of the "everything's connected" concept, allowing these stories to revolve around the turmoil of infidelity, the toxicity of dishonesty, and the burdens of creative ambition to emerge from the director's candid dramatic orchestrations. A vague notion of existential anxiety and dogged suspicion hovers above Short Cuts, shaken up by a rocky conclusion that attempts to bring those ideas into clearer view, yet that still doesn't serve as the sole, requisite takeaway from Altman's keyhole glimpse into these lives. This can be a small world held together by a lot of complicated threads -- some worn out or taped back together, others that can be permanently severed -- and that's all this poignant gem needs to convey.

The Blu-ray:

Short Cuts helicopters onto Blu-ray in a re-released package from The Criterion Collection as spine #265, sporting nearly identical heart-infused artwork on both the exterior and interior. Inside, a thin Booklet has been included that features information about the transfer, a guide to the music, and an essay, "City Symphony", by Michael Wilmington.

Video and Audio:

Clocking in at three hours long, the presentation of Short Cuts rightfully gets a Blu-ray all to itself from The Criterion Collection, which has been derived from a new 4K digital scan of the original 35mm film negative. In the label's prior DVD release, colors were oversaturated and black levels were a bit too deep, so it's unsurprising that this 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer rectifies those issues ... perhaps a bit too much. Skin tones toward a more neutral and balanced shade while keeping more stylized elements -- neon green clown hair, late-'80s leftover decor, cake icing -- appropriately bold, while the image completely avoids appearing overly dark in any sequence, sometimes a bit too much when somewhat grayish black levels slip into the picture. Sharp detail isn't really in abundance here, but the transfer's ability to capture strands of hair, brushstrokes, and other semi-natural textures can be quite pleasing. The presence of grain has its ups and downs, appearing organic in some scenes and a bit too harsh (and roughly compressed) in others, but the image generally retains a largely natural appearance from start to finish.

Expectedly, the DTS-HD Master Audio tracks -- yep, plural -- focus on retaining as much clarity of the dialogue as possible, which consistently sounds quite splendid across the spread of the front channels. However, Short Cuts also holds a reputation for its musical touches throughout, whether it's the lounge singing, the orchestral components, or the jazzy soundtrack itself. Whether you're listening to the 5.1 track, which carefully and competently uses the rear channels for necessary atmospheric effect, or opting for the original 2.0 stereo track derived and remastered from the original magnetic strip, both the verbal delivery and the robust tunes come across with the upmost clarity and organic heft. From loud yelling to quiet whispers, the dialogue stays free of distortion and incredibly well-balanced with environmental touches -- chatter and clanking of a diner, bustle of a nightclub -- while the robustness of cello music and the room-filling resonance of throaty female vocals remain effortlessly strong. The isolated music track has also been included.

Special Features:

Short Cuts arrived on The Criterion Collection twelve years back with a fairly loaded DVD, so it's unsurprising -- albeit somewhat disappointing -- that nothing new has been crafted for this release, absent of any kind of new retrospectives from the actors. In fact, there's something missing this time around: the Segment from BBC's Moving Pictures, which chronicled the development of the film's script. Everything else has been carried over from the previous release, though, central of which is the conversation with Tim Robbins and Robert Altman, Reflections on Short Cuts (28:56, 16x9 HD) that was recorded specifically for The Criterion Collection in 2004. The actor-director duo discuss individual scenes, the role nudity plays in Altman's films (and anecdotes about the nudity in Short Cuts), and his somewhat masochistic tendency to read critic reviews. It's a pretty great conversation and remains a solid central extra for this home-video presentation.

Alongside the Additional Scenes, the Music Demos, and the Marketing section that focuses on the advertising and trailers/teasers/TV spots, The Criterion Collection also gathered together a cluster of archival supplements for the film. Front and center stands the feature-length documentary Luck, Trust, and Ketchup (1:30:02, 4x3 HD), which features an exhaustive array of interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses at the making of the film. Also included is a near feature-length documentary on Raymond Carver, To Write and Keep Kind (56:48, 16x9 HD), produced by PBS and containing recitals and insights into his work. There's also an Audio Interview with Raymond Carver (51:47) recorded in 1983 for the American Audio Prose Library.

Final Thoughts:

Short Cuts remains one of the strongest examples of the intersecting narrative subgenre to date, in which Robert Altman ties together several stories adapted and inspired by the writings of Raymond Carver into a glimpse at "unremarkable" people living in Los Angeles. A large, phenomenal cast jibes splendidly with Altman's intimate perspective on characters, weaving them together within a series of largely unconnected but thematically consistent glimpses at complicated relationships, artistic diligence, and the threshold of trustworthiness and faith placed in others. The Criterion Collection have upgraded the audiovisual properties quite a bit for this Blu-ray, though the special features contain nothing new from the previous release (and have subtracted one extra, too). Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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