Robert Altman’s Short Cuts

A decade ago this week, American director, screenwriter and producer, Robert Altman, died at the age of 81. Listed amongst his many film credits are MASHMcCabe and Mrs. MillerNashvilleThe Player and Gosford Park—all of which received critical acclaim, particularly in Europe. One of Altman’s finest films is the 188-minute portmanteau feast Short Cuts; based upon nine Raymond Carver short stories which are cleverly integrated into a loose whole in this film.

Many Carver enthusiasts are not fans of Altman’s film, but I think he does a wonderful job of stitching the stories together and the ensemble cast deliver wonderful performances. There are an astounding 22 principle characters -including Andie McDowell, Julian Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Robert Downey Junior, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Frances McDormand, Tom Waits, Jack Lemon, Lyle Lovett and Huey Lewis.

The film opens with a flotilla of helicopters spraying Los Angeles for medfly which is the loose pretext for covering the lives of people within that geographical area.  There are multiple story strands going on, as you’d expect from a film integrating nine short stories.

So Much Water So Close To Home is one of Carver’s most drawn upon short stories (inspiring the movie Jindabyne and Paul Kelly’s eponymously titled album) and is wonderfully developed in the film. After fisherman Stuart Kane (Fred Ward) and his friends discover a young woman naked and dead in the river while on a fishing trip, they decide to leave her there until they’re finished, reasoning that she’ll be preserved by the cold water, and that they will report it to police later, which they do. The horror of indifference is what is going on here and Stuart’s wife Claire (Anne Archer) – whose day job is a travelling party clown – puts in a brilliant performance as she tries to understand the order of events, which Stuart is reluctant to fully disclose. Claire keeps pressing, hoping to allay a feeling that something’s not right until she uncovers the awful truth and is outraged and hurt by Stuart’s cavalier attitude.


This story is integrated with another storyline which follows the unhappy marriage of a doctor, Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). When the Wymans have a chance meeting with the Kanes at a concert, Julian invites the Kanes to dinner later in the week, much to Ralph’s chagrin. Just before the Kanes arrive at the Wymans for dinner, Ralph and Marian have a massive fight and Marian admits to an infidelity from years ago. The raw emotion that Claire is feeling toward Stuart over the fishing incident and Marian’s revelation about her affair give the dinner party an interesting dynamic. The dynamics at play between the working-class Kanes and the middle-class Wymans intersect in interesting ways before dissolving into a hedonistic humanism as the drinks flow and the raw emotion which lurked beneath the surface evaporates.

There’s lots of light and shade in the film; drama leavened by comedy. Robert Downey Jr. plays Bill Bush, a make-up artist for film who is also a roguish philanderer. The storyline integrates Carver’s short story Neighbors which involves Bill and his wife Honey (Lili Taylor) feeding their neighbours tropical fish while the neighbours are on vacation. Bill is keen to move into the apartment while they are away, smoke there and enjoy more visceral thrills. Bill also happens to be best friends with Jerry (Chris Penn) who is married to, and has a child with, Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a sex phone worker who goes about her work routine openly in the house as she changes nappies or cooks dinner. Later in the film as Bill and Jerry have wandered away from their spouses at a picnic – attempting to pick up a couple of young women – things go violently and dramatically wrong.

There are way too many storylines to cover so all I can suggest is to get a copy of the film and watch it. There are some extremely funny scenes, there’s high dramatic tension but also extremely moving moments that are all too human, which is the element that makes this film a faithful rendition of Carver’s stories, of their humanistic spirit and generosity. Humans that make mistakes, and in fact seem irredeemably hopeless, like Gene (Tim Robbins) – an LA cop who is a serial cheater, who dumps the family dog miles away from home and at another point attempts to pick up Claire Kane on the pretext of a traffic violation – are not presented as flawed archetypes who need to go through a redemptive moral journey, but are accepted as they are, with all their faults.


Perhaps the predominating storyline of the film is that based upon Carver’s A Small, Good Thing which follows the story of the Finnigan family. After eight-year-old Casey is accidentally struck down by a car (driven by Doreen Piggot – Lily Tomlin – who plays the wife of alcoholic limo driver Earl – Tom Waits) he appears fine immediately following the collision but after returning home, soon slips into a coma he won’t recover from. Mother Ann, (Andie MacDowell) has ordered an eighth birthday cake for Casey from a baker (Lyle Lovett) and as Casey’s condition worsens, she and her husband receive a series of escalating calls from the baker which become more aggressive as Ann misses the cake pick-up time and her husband Howard fobs him off. When Casey dies, Ann and Howard visit the baker to give him a piece of their mind and the baker, whose name we learn is Andy, offers them food to comfort them in their time of acute grief and apologises for his calls. Despite the dramatic potential here, it’s probably the weakest element in the film in a moment which should have reached a high emotional register.

But this is only one low point in a film with so much to recommend it. A portmanteau structure is not common in Hollywood because historically the three act structure has been de rigueur – based around the star system where one protagonist has a singular journey which is resolved by the third act. But when you have so many high quality actors and stars like this, working on an adaptation by a brilliant director of an enormously talented writer like Carver – feted for his ability to find the extraordinary in the everyday – the portmanteau structure works superbly, offering episodic, but nonetheless evocative and moving slices of ordinary life.