Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Short Cuts

Sometimes I think people overstate Altman's state of affairs in the 80s. First of all, "Popeye" didn't flop, and regardless of whatever box office business his films did after that, it's not like he was a commercial titan in the first place. Nevertheless, everyone can agree that Altman returned to making classics with 1992's biting satire The Player, but it was this follow-up that confirmed one of the best late-career resurgences in cinema.

Consisting of 22 major players and 10 distinct and interweaving storylines, Short Cuts may not be Altman's best film (I gotta give it up for Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller), it's certainly his most daring. If The Player examined the ins-and-outs of Hollywood, Short Cuts pulls the camera back a bit to capture all of Los Angeles, and he uses this larger frame to delve into the modern state of America. Here, community has given way to individuality too self-absorbed and detached to produce anything of worth, and even the ties that remain are weakened by dysfunctionality.

To tackle all of the films threads would utterly drain all the entertainment I take from this film, so here's a recap: waitress Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin) accidentally hits a young boy with her car, and the boy's parents (Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell) must deal with his comatose state for most of the film. Meanwhile, two marriages crumble from infidelity, one comes under strain due to the wife's occupation as a phone sex operator, and another, the most stable, survives on the husband's (Robert Downey, Jr.) sadism. Also, three fisherman spot a dead woman in the water on their trip but decide to continue fishing before altering the police. Yes, this is a recap.

It'd be easy--hell, almost understandable--if Altman lost his way amongst the disconnect of the original Raymond Carter stories, but not only does he make the stories work, he ties them together in ways that manage to be both tangential and vitally important. Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) cleans the pool of the Finnigans (the parents of the struck child), then he goes home to his phone sex operator wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Both are friends with Downey's character Bill and his wife Honey (Lili Taylor), the daughter of Doreen and her husband Earl (Tom Waits). All tiny, insignificant little threads, but they combine to make a much fuller story.

All of these individual stories confirm Altman's predictions in Nashville: with that film the director noticed the growing self-denial and personal isolationism of Americans, what with the constant pontificating of empty words no one really paid attention to and the immediate denial of the ending tragedy. Here, at last, is the final outcome of that mentality: some have labelled the film as misogynistic because its various abused women stay with their men, but it's because everybody's so wrapped up in themselves that interpersonal conflicts come second to internal ones.

There's something about Altman's direction that I just love: he gives us all these characters, but there's never anything episodic about his visual style. Even though the cuts between stories and characters are more jarring and sudden here than in Nashville and McCabe, Altman moves between characters with grace, and often tackles more than one story at the same time using overlapped dialogue that confuses as it enlightens. This style of visual narrative is much of the reason why I think Altman is one of the best directors ever and a true original.

The use of music in Short Cuts also adds a dimension to the proceedings. This is my second time viewing the film, and this time I paid attention to the music after flipping through Michael Wilmington's essay for the Criterion booklet. A mixture of somber classical music and upbeat jazz variations, they do what all great scores must: capture the mood. Of course, Altman's working with a soundtrack, and he has to capture moods within moods, so the fact that he and his music department pulls it off is nothing short of amazing. The classical music plays over moments of despair--indeed, the suicidal cellist (Lori Singer) is the only person who confronts her despair head-on instead of burying it under obliviousness or drugs--while the jazz songs, which all belie severity under their swinging tempos, characterize those who mask their pain.

All in all, this is a late-stage masterpiece from a man who had been dismissed by most in the business as a has-been. For a film with almost no character evolution, it gets out unbelievable levels of pathos, and it uses characters that would be one-dimensional in any other film to paint a complex portrait of personal interaction and the despair of the human condition. It's absolutely essential.

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