Prime Cuts

Little Casey is late for school. As kids in a hurry are wont to do, he bolts into the street without looking, directly into the path of an oncoming car being driven by Doreen, a waitress at a local hash house. Doreen slams on the brakes -- too late! Casey goes down in a heap. He doesn't appear badly hurt, however, just a little shaken up. No blood, no broken bones. Doreen is frantic all the same. She wants to take him home, to call his parents, to do something, but Casey refuses. He knows the rule: Don't accept rides from strangers. He dusts himself off, politely but firmly rejecting Doreen's offers of assistance as he walks briskly back to his empty but tastefully furnished suburban home. Casey quietly lets himself in, parks himself on the couch in front of the TV, and promptly lapses into a coma.

Casey and Doreen are but two of 22 major players in Short Cuts, Robert Altman's acidic distillation of nine Raymond Carver short stories (plus one poem) into one grand indictment of the hollowness and fragility of modern American family life. If you're wondering how the director takes so many actors and subplots and transforms them into one linear, cohesive, two-hour movie, you should know this going in: he doesn't. Many of the characters cross paths over the course of the film's three hours and nine minutes, sometimes randomly and sometimes with larger dramatic purpose, but the linkages are more thematic than schematic.

Altman is famous for this sort of thing, of course. The cinematic equivalent of an impressionist painter, Altman has always been more concerned with mood and tone than he has with traditional story structures and mainstream narrative conventions. In that respect Short Cuts is a throwback to 1975's Nashville, one of the director's most talked-about films, which also dealt with a multitude of characters and did not bother with a central, unifying story line. Short Cuts is nine subplots in search of a plot. That's only a minor annoyance, because it's held together by great acting by such stars as Tim Robbins, Andie MacDowell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jack Lemmon. Carver purists may be disappointed because Altman doesn't slavishly follow the short stories, but this is really the director's baby all the way. If you like Altman, as I do, you'll cherish it as his crowning achievement. If you don't like Altman, consider yourself forewarned.

Although the new film is set in Southern California and an earthquake figures prominently into the final act, the most significant fault line that connects Short Cuts' motley assortment of walking wounded is not the San Andreas. Rather, it's the yawning gulf between the sexes, with a dollop of suburban angst thrown in for good measure. In Altman's world men are usually, if not always, jerks. Some are pompous, anal-retentive, and self-absorbed, like TV editorialist Howard Finnigan. As medfly-bombing helicopters cut a portentous swath through the air above the swimming pools, manicured lawns, and cheating hearts of greater Los Angeles, Finnigan harangues the apathetic citizenry about the fires, mudslides, crime, and gang warfare that plague the region. Then he wonders on the air, "Why should we have to share it with the Mexicans?"

The only person who takes Howard seriously is Howard. Even his beautiful, comfortably numb wife, Ann, whose biggest daily challenge is ordering the right cake for their son's upcoming birthday, would rather read a magazine than listen to her husband's televised ranting. And theirs is perhaps the strongest relationship in this scathing attack on suburbia.

"How goes the war?" Howard, on his way to work, asks the pool cleaner.
"Bad guys are winning, sir," replies the chlorine man. It's but one of a hundred or more throwaway lines crammed into Short Cuts, but it neatly sums up the misanthropic director's cynical vision.

Nobody does suburban dysfunction like Robert Altman. Short Cuts is his doctoral thesis on the topic. Consider just one story's cast of characters: Gene, the philandering cop who first heartlessly abandons, then later retrieves, the family dog; Sherri, Gene's masochistic wife, who tolerates his dalliances even as she howls with laughter at his increasingly ridiculous excuses involving crack babies and unspecified dangerous work that he cannot tell her about "for your own protection." Gene is the kind of cop who hits on an attractive party clown named Claire during a traffic stop. When Sherri finds Claire's phone number in Gene's pocket, the cop doesn't bat an eyelash.

"Claire Kane," he drones, "a.k.a. 'The Clown.' Bunco artist wanted in three states. Now I've compromised your safety and the safety of our kids. You happy?" Minutes later Gene's halfway across town, kissing his mistress, real-estate agent Betty Weathers. Betty is the estranged wife of Stormy Weathers, a dashing, womanizing, borderline-psychotic chopper pilot who uses their son Chad as a pawn in a cruel game of vengeance. When Betty takes off for a clandestine weekend getaway with yet another lover, Stormy breaks into her house, dumps all her clothes into a washing machine, and pours in a gallon of bleach. And that's just for starters; the real fun doesn't begin until he whips out the chainsaw.

And so it goes, one lost soul after another. Altman trots out a virtual parade of clueless suburban archetypes: Earl, an alcoholic limo driver whose relationship with the waitress Doreen, his wife, is an endless series of drunken fits and starts; Marian, a painter with a killer crush on Alex Trebek; Marian's husband Ralph, who is the injured boy Casey's doctor; Jerry Kaiser, the mild-mannered pool cleaner whose wife Lois nonchalantly operates a phone-sex business out of their house while she does the laundry and changes diapers; Andy, the lonely baker who goes ballistic when Ann forgets to pick up Casey's custom-made cake; Zoe, the melancholy cellist with the penchants for skinny-dipping, pickup basketball, and self-mutilation.

These people are just one step removed from the zombies who mindlessly wander shopping malls in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. They comfort themselves with modern-day mantras: Don't accept rides from strangers. Get the license-plate number. When an earthquake hits, take shelter in the nearest doorway. They've lost the ability to think and feel for themselves. Instead they react to crisis situations by following rules drummed into them since kindergarten. And even then they blow it. When Ann comes home from the bakery and finds her brave little Casey passed out on the couch, she becomes hysterical and cannot remember whether to let the kid sleep or to keep him awake until the ambulance arrives.

Only an artist of Altman's surpassing skill could render such a human landscape at once bleak and funny. For example, Gordon Johnson, a weekend angler, has stopped by the neighborhood photo shop to pick up the prints he and his buddies shot during their big fishing trip, the one where they discovered the corpse of a beautiful woman who had been brutally murdered, floating in the stream. Meanwhile, Honey Bush, a passive housewife, has come to the same store to retrieve snapshots taken by her husband, an aspiring special-effects makeup artist who practices his grisly art on her, making her up to look like a mutilated murder victim and then photographing her from a variety of harrowing angles. The clerk accidentally switches the photographs; Gordon blanches at the sight of what appear to be stills from a snuff film, and Honey recoils when she sees the floating body in the mountain stream.

Recognizing the mixup as they walk back to their respective cars, Gordon and Honey stop and eye each other warily -- each convinced the other is a sadistic killer but trying to act calmly so as not to arouse suspicions. The photographs are politely exchanged; the fisherman and the housewife return to their vehicles, each making a mental note of the other's license-plate number so that they can report their gruesome "discovery" to the proper authorities.

A shortcut is supposed to be a way of getting from one place to another more quickly than by conventional means. Ironically, if there's one American director whose body of work suggests a complete lack of concern with getting from point A to point B rapidly, it's Robert Altman. Actors love him; for Altman a script is a bare-bones outline to be fleshed out in front of the camera, with plenty of room for improvisation. The end result is that Altman films are usually teeming with great performances, and Short Cuts is no exception. From Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits as Doreen and Earl to Lyle Lovett as the volatile baker, Short Cuts is a textbook example of superb ensemble acting. And it's worth the price of admission to see Tim Robbins as macho Gene, standing under the doorway of his home in his boxer shorts, grabbing a bullhorn, and commanding his neighbors to be calm as an earthquake rattles their walls.

In his novel Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane writes, "Life looked straight in the eye is insupportable.... The great trick is to avoid looking it straight in the eye. Askance and it all shines on." Short Cuts is a movie populated by folks who have taken McGuane's words to heart. They do everything they can to avoid looking life straight in the eye. Robert Altman, on the other hand, cannot help himself. He feels compelled to examine it all under the harsh light of day. With Short Cuts he takes a long, hard look into the maw of the modern American psyche and confirms his strongest suspicion and worst fear. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, there is no there, there. It's ironic that such a dim view of the human condition is conveyed by a film so rich with subtle characterization, wry humor, and shrewd observation. Life may be empty, but Short Cuts is full to the brim.

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