Thursday, July 9, 2009

Short Cuts (1993)

By Eric Jessen 7/8/09

In Short Cuts we don't meet just one character, who moves forward a story. There really is no story to tell. We never truly understand any single character's personality. Instead we meet a city, LA, and LA has many characters and all of those character's silly, strange, depressing lives combine to form LA's personality. LA in Short Cuts is a professional phone sex girl, a nightclub singer, a cello prodigy, a pool man, a horror movie makeup artist, a painter of “colorless” naked women, an anchorman, Claire the Clown, a doctor, some housewives, a patrolman, a helicopter pilot, a drunk, a waitress, dozens of ignored children, and much more. They all are intertwined masterfully in Robert Altman's style by small coincidences. And what the people of LA have in common is that they all cheat and lie and are generally unhappy. Some of them are even on the verge of suicide or murder.
Short Cuts is a significant achievement in its ability to weave so many small stories and characters together. Short Cuts paved the way for movies like Crash, Babel and Magnolia. In Short Cuts Robert Altman is trying to accomplish something profound that may have never been tried before in movies. Instead of trying to understand the mind of a single person, the protagonist, he attempts to understand the collective mind of everyone. Maybe he's just trying to understand human nature. In Short Cuts we get the sense that the dozens of characters in LA are all of one conscience. And the final Earthquake, with an apocalyptic message, brings all the characters even closer together. They all experience the same feeling. Instead of indirectly affecting each other, they are all being equally affected by the same thing. With Short Cuts I'm confused but extremely interested.
Short Cuts has the structure but falls short of fully understanding LA. (This is a complicated point, so bear with me.) The point of movies like Short Cuts and Magnolia and even Nashville, in my opinion, is to scratch the surface of many characters, but collectively delve into a broader point. In this case, we don't fully understand any one character, but we are supposed to better understand LA. Altman has effectively shown me that the people in LA lie and cheat. All people in LA are also unhappy, but why? Not, why is each individual happy? I can see why the pool man is unhappy. His wife, the professional phone sex girl, talks dirty in front of their small children. The cello prodigy misses her father, and all the rest are unhappy because they're being cheated on. But why does this happen? What about LA, and what about the world, does this to people? Or, what about people, makes them do this to themselves? Short Cuts has only scratched the surface of it's broader point about LA.
I also think Short Cuts doesn't show the whole picture of LA. I don't live in LA but I know it's not made up exclusively of middle class white people. Where are the poor people, the filthy rich people, the black people, the Asian people, the Hispanic people. Maybe Altman was trying to show us the average person in LA and the US. But how can you understand a city if you've never met entire racial groups and social classes. Either way it's Altman's picture, and he can paint it anyway he wants.
I'll put that issue behind me... Short Cuts is a very entertaining movie. The 187 minutes flew by. I am amazed at Altman's ability to weave together such a large ensemble. The acting is superb, Robert Altman always brings the best out of his actors. In Short Cuts LA is Fred Ward, Andie Macdowell, Bruce Davison, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tom Waits, Lily Tomlin, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Jerrett Lennon, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, and Dirk Blocker.

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