27 November 2004

Short Cuts

For a long time, one of Robert Altman's best movies, Short Cuts, seemed to have been lost in the valley between Altman's big popular successes, The Player and Gosford Park -- good films both, particularly the latter, but Short Cuts is one of the greatest achievements in American film.

Finally, The Criterion Collection has brought Short Cuts to DVD, and it gives us a chance to look again at a movie that does exactly what an adaptation of literature from one medium to another should do: create something original and profound.

Short Cuts is based on a handful of stories and one poem by Raymond Carver. Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, supported Robert Altman's idea of melding the original material, moving characters around, relocating the stories from their various settings to Los Angeles, and letting them all happen concurrently over the course of a few days. Altman collaborated on the script with Frank Barhydt, and together they not only cut up the stories, but created some characters and plotlines of their owns (ones that, later, Gallagher would say seemed startlingly Carveresque).

On its release, the movie was received with some very strong reviews, as well as sharp critiques, especially from Carver purists. Rita Kempley at the Washington Post called it "cynical, sexist and shallow ... long, sour and ultimately pointless". (Metacritic has a handy roundup of reactions.) Cynical? Yes. Sexist? There are sexist characters, and if you think that women without clothes are always objects for lust, then, yes, perhaps, because there's a lot of nudity. Shallow? No (this is a case where the reviewer is not up to the standard of the film she's writing about). Long? Yes. Sour ... sometimes, but that's a tonal judgment, even more subjective than other judgments. Ultimately pointless? Again, this time that's the reviewer's failing, not the film's.

I'll leave it to Roger Ebert, Peter Travers, and Michael Wilmington to sing the general praises of Short Cuts, because I want to look specifically at the charges of realism leveled at it and, to a certain extent, at Carver. About the film overall, I'll just say that I've seen it about six times now -- once in the theatre, multiple times on videotape, and now on DVD -- and each time I find some new particle within the dense fabric of the whole to be thought-provoking, disturbing, or emotionally affecting. It's not a film to see if you want to be able to get everything there is to get on a first viewing; it's not a film to see if you want your art to tell you what to feel and when.

What I noticed while watching Short Cuts this time was how marvelously contrived it is. "Contrived" can be a dangerous word to apply to a story, because, though all stories are contrived in some way or another, people like their stories to feel like a window on a possible world, even though, if we pause to stop for a moment and think about it, we know we're being sold a bag of air. When a narrative feels contrived, we feel the manipulations that are an inherent element of all art -- the creator-selector saying, "Look here, know this, think this, hear this." Clumsily created stories, stories that aspire to realism and fail, can be frustrating, but stories that, whether they aspire to realism or not, fully embrace their contrivances can often be great fun, and sometimes profound.

Altman is a brilliant, canny director and writer. He chose a writer known for his "realism", a writer who was a master of contriving stories in just such a way as to make them feel like shards of actual life (a combination, in Carver's case, of structure and diction as much as choice of detail), and then he upped the contrivance level to a point where it becomes impossible not to notice the contrivance. Imagine the film as a duet: all the techniques of realism (long scenes, overlapping dialogue, etc.) in harmony, and occasionally discord, with an entirely unrealistic narrative. On their own, Carver's stories get away with seeming realistic because their contrivances are limited; scrambled together, they are nothing but contrivance.

And yet, more often than not, it feels like life as it is lived. Endless coincidences. Inexplicable actions. Connections beneath connections. The movie is as carefully plotted as a heist thriller, but it feels shaggy and rambling, particularly on the first or second viewing. The key is the scope -- over twenty main characters, 183 minutes of film. All the virtues of an epic applied to ordinary subject matter, the effect being a deepening of both the technique and the subject matter. It's as if somebody sent Virginia Woolf to film school.

People often compare Magnolia to Short Cuts, and the comparison is apt (I would be stunned if Paul Thomas Anderson had not seen Altman's film, and Julianne Moore stars in both), but a comparison I haven't seen made is to An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, a deeply sensitive and affecting adaptation of works by Anton Chekhov. Nikita Mikhalkov's technique with Chekhov is similar to Altman's with Carver: Mikhalkov took Chekhov's first play, Platonov, a sprawling disaster, and edited it, adding in pieces from and allusions to Chekhov's other works, creating what is easily the most Chekhovian movie I've ever seen (and I have suffered through more than I would like to admit, being a bit obsessive about dear Antosha). Carver, of course, said Chekhov was one of his personal gods, though I remember reading somewhere that he said he didn't like the plays. Short Cuts, amusingly enough, feels like a Chekhov play, because though he's always referred to as a "realist", Chekhov was just as much interested in contrivance and coincidence as any farceur, his literary roots being with comic short stories and comic short plays. It's as if Altman made from Carver's raw material the script Carver never could have written on his own, just as Mikhalkov created an immensely satisfying movie from Chekhov's failed play.

Altman's movie, though, is certainly not a movie Carver would have written, because their sensibilities are different, with Carver tending more toward sentimentality and Altman tending at times toward frigidity, though I think what seems to be his "cold" style of filmmaking actually comes from a profound respect for the audience. Unlike, for instance, Steven Spielberg, who does his damnedest to make sure you know exactly what to feel when, Altman is content to let your emotions be confused. Where Spielberg's aesthetic is totalitarian, Altman's is a sort of anarcho-communism. Carver achieved something similar occasionally, though he was also frequently quite mannered in his writing, so if you read a whole book of Carver stories in a short period of time, the emotional and aesthetic effect is far less than if you read a story here or there, with some time between them. (If Spielberg is totalitarian and Altman is anarcho-communist, then Carver is American democracy: you've got choices, but there are only a couple, neither radically different.)

What makes Short Cuts so remarkable is that Carver's characters and stories become so interesting when approached with Altman's colder, somewhat more cynical eye. There is still room for redemption and compassion, and the film even offers glimpses of it, but we the viewers are left to apply such concepts ourselves to the quiet spaces in between the stories, to the moments after the arguments. By creating a highly artificial universe, Altman provides us a vehicle with which to think more deeply about the actual universes of our lives.

(And while I'm here, let me pray to the gods at Criterion to get to one of Altman's other neglected masterpieces, Vincent and Theo, soon.)

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