We had seen this before, but a few weeks ago we saw an Australian film, Jindabyne, that inspired us to see it again. I have a Laserdisc copy. The thing is, Short Cuts, by Robert Altman, is a longish movie (183 minutes) made from nine short stories by Raymond Carver, intertwined. The Aussie film takes just one of those stories and expands it to full length. The Aussie film is damn good. Not as good as this one, but come on, this is Altman.
One measure of just how good this movie is can be seen by simply listing the cast, or most of them: Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Andie MacDowell, Lyle Lovett, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, and Frances McDormand. There are others, too, including Alex Trebek as himself.
So we have nine stories, some of them connected to each other from the early scenes, others not coming together until much later, some of them hardly connected at all except for chance encounters. The one everyone remembers most vividly is the one that was used in Jindabyne, where some men go fishing in a remote wilderness, discover the body of a nude, murdered woman in the river, and decide there’s no point in trekking out to report it—she’s already dead, right?—so they continue fishing. Seemed reasonable at the time, I guess. Then there is Tim Robbins as a very bad motorcycle cop. Lily Tomlin is a waitress who hits a little boy with her car, tries to help him, but stands helplessly as he walks off. She doesn’t know that an hour later he collapses and is in the hospital, in a coma. Frances McDormand is divorced from a real prize jerk, Peter Gallagher, who visits her house while she’s gone and tears it up with a chain saw. Chris Penn is a pool cleaner married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spends all day making money talking on a phone sex line while at the same time putting diapers on the baby. He never says anything about it, but you can see it’s eating at him. Mathew Modine is the doctor treating the injured boy, and he’s married to an artist, Julianne Moore. Bruce Davison is the father of the boy. His own father, Jack Lemmon, who abandoned him 30 years ago, shows up without warning. It’s one hell of a performance by Jack. There are many other stories not quite as easy to summarize. What’s amazing to me is that I had very little trouble keeping up with this huge cast and all their stories, though Altman hops over them very quickly.
And looking back over the stories, I hadn’t remembered how many of them involved a man being a real bastard. Not that all the women are blameless victims of their men, but there are not many men here that one would admire. Peter Gallagher and Tim Robbins in particular are total scum. No redeeming qualities. Also Tom Waits as a limo driver and Lily Tomlin’s boyfriend. Also Lyle Lovett as, of all things, a mad birthday cake baker … though both of them surprise me later.
If you’re looking for conventional narrative, go somewhere else. Many of the story threads just stop, and we’re left wondering. Some of the threads, in fact, end in events that will have a severe aftermath, but we never see the aftermath. I say, get over it. All events in our lives have an aftermath, and another after that, and another after that, including your own death, whose aftermath you will not witness, either. A story must end somewhere, and little in life has a discrete dramatic resolution. And this movie is very much about life, not about forcing events into a dramatic scheme. We see events that are almost apocalyptic in their intensity … and then life goes on, as it always does.
This is a pretty damn sexy movie. There are several scenes of full nudity, including a stunning long scene where Julianne Moore proves she is a natural redhead. Not many actresses would have had the guts to play that scene, but again, this is Altman. Throughout there is music, jazz and bluesy jazz, mostly performed by Annie Ross and The Low Note Quintet.
This is Altman’s longest film, by far, and in some ways it can be seen as his masterpiece. Though he has half a dozen others I would also call masterpieces, my personal favorite being M*A*S*H. He has a lot in common with Woody Allen, I think. Not stylistically, and not in subject matter, but in the fact that both were so well-respected that actors of the very top caliber, actors who could earn multi-million dollar fees, were eager to work with them for not much money at all. Just for the privilege of working with him. He’s gone now, but what a legacy of cinema he has left us.