The 1980s were like forced, unpaid indefinite leave for the more challenging American directors to emerge out of the 1970s New Hollywood Cinema. Martin Scorsese mostly survived the war on adult-minded cinema. Terrence Malick just up and left, emerging at the tail end of the more independent ’90s in a nominally less hostile climate to his kind. One of the most productive casualties of the ’80s was Robert Altman, a director who pumped out smaller-scale projects like a worker-ant throughout the decade, even if few of them were buttressed by critical or commercial support. 1992’s The Player, a surprising and ceremonious return to commercial and critical success for Altman, was a ribald, scabrous affair but hardly a darling work of formalism to match any number of films Altman directed during the ’70s. Notable though that film may be, its most lasting and important achievement is more utilitarian: it brought Altman back from the nebulous ether, and afforded him the clout to make the far more intellectually provocative, cinematically daring Short Cuts.
Perhaps Altman was angry at suckling on Hollywood’s scraps for a decade, or perhaps he knew all too well the cavernous profundo his career might vacillate back into nothing if the Hollywood machine grew angry at him again. For whatever reason, Altman used Short Cuts as an opportunity to downtune The Player, his pleasantly upending, offbeat attack on Hollywood, with a far more scratching dissection of LA ennui and modern artifice. He had surreptitiously gained Hollywood’s favor so that the pugnacious director – as browbeaten and ready to fight back as ever – could stab the city of angels in the back.
Gaining permission to adapt a cavalcade of Raymond Carver’s literary boll weevils, Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt concocted an ever more insidious piece of dissembling cinematic fiction that, like Carver’s work, explores the vestiges of Americana to crystallize the malignant growths underneath. Altman’s trademark mixture of sugar and spice, empathy and brio, is particularly piercing within the tonally jumbled, intentionally chaotic world of a film discombobulated from its source, shifted from individual, linear stories into an impressionistic collage of overlapping, anomie-dusted yarns that defies linearity.
In redefining Carver and treating his corpus with maximum looseness of tone and style, Short Cuts emerged as an accidental paragon of dozens of so-called “hyperlink” films that have followed in the path blazed by Short Cuts all while somehow missing the texture of the film in the process. Such films, often masterminded by holier-than-thou filmmakers like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, are both distressingly literal and willfully oblivious to anything other than their own preoccupation with mechanical forthrightness overriding expressions of sensual feeling. They read intellectually, while Altman’s films always read sensually. Reaching a glut in the mid ’00s with works like Babel thick-on-the-ground every year, such ensemble films abandon not only Altman’s visual derring-do and expressive lyricism but, most importantly, his boldfaced subjectivity. Preoccupied with connecting-the-dots and packing the screen to burst with events, actions, reactions, narratives, characters, and unforeseen consequences, they tether themselves to their too-literal. too-objective narratives and ultimately hemorrhage in the bowels of their own innards searching for a definitive conclusion to life’s mysteries that doesn’t exist.
Short Cuts obstructs such notions of conclusivity, thickly marinating itself in a homebrewed improvisatory impressionism that glides and traipses around characters, observing, hazarding, and suggesting connections less narrative than thematic and moodlike without ever doubling backward to tie every last narrative knot or logic-engorged character. Altman’s film, like all of his films and like most of the great films in the world, flaunts its own subjectivity, tentatively linking characters and then doubting or rewriting the links, testing them and watching them buckle under pressure rather than approaching any arbitrary notions of objective reality or truth.
Roger Ebert brilliantly reduced the hyperlink phenomenon to a series of cinematic “crossword puzzles” devoid of life and cordoned off in funereal intellectualism. While those films succumb to the inertia and stasis of their declamatory webs of meaning and discovery, Altman’s film doesn’t force discovery. Rather, he allows it to unearth from the ground naturally before diaphonously evaporating into the corrosive air. Truth isn’t stagnant or calcified here, but a chimera that only appears in provisional places. The letters, which are rigorously planned to fill in the crossword in most hyperlinks, don’t coalesce in Short Cuts; take the introductory credits, with names of actors and crew members floating and jumbling in mid-air, quavering and shaking as they slow when they appear near one another, threatening togetherness only to reenergize and drift away yet again. Short Cuts is a work of cinematic entropy, untethering itself as characters meet, greet, stutter, and flutter on their way.
Most of the films that have applied the Short Cuts formula have copied-pasted the literal realm of the film while missing the forest for the trees; Altman isn’t about overlapping stories to create a logical, robotic super-narrative; instead, he emphasizes fractious dissassembly of social space and the stripping of filmic narrative logic. His stories are mood pieces first and foremost, tableaux of a city linked not primarily by literal narrative but by sense, mood, atmosphere, visual motif, and aural conglomeration. Pointedly, the shifts in perspective occur for tonal and pacing reasons, like motifs in a symphony with each character as a discursive instrumental voice. Their narratives happen to connect, yes, but the texture of Short Cuts isn’t about those narrative connections and individual stories so much as it is about the cosmic suggestion of temporality, unknown space, and camera subjectivity.
The credits, by the way, refresh us to Altman’s impressionistic storytelling, dropping us in on characters before being whisked away back into the night sky as colored names dance around red-and-green pigmented planes dripping porous chemicals that will permeate throughout the film. A news report primes us for the bug infestation prompting the chemical downpour in the first place, and as the camera trepidatiously flips back and forth between characters and the planes, the malevolently dreamlike aircraft take on the aura of bugs themselves, conjoining people under the acidic air and spreading discontent and a sort of moral fever that will rot over the film’s verbose but never garrulous three hours. As one character, a pool cleaner, covers his car so as to rebuke the advances of the chemical mist, he tellingly fails to cover himself. As he looks up and Altman smashes us with the sight of planes barreling overhead, dousing us with mist as well, we become entwined in the lives of people who worry about and shield their own mechanical devices and artificial images, but leave themselves out in the open.
From there, it’s a consternation-encrusted path to the cataclysm as LA slowly widens, separates, condenses, sublimates, and externalizes its internal emotions in every sort of motion you can imagine. Its future may herald implosion or explosion, but we’re always aware of wounds and fissures opening like tectonic pulses and shifts in the Earth. Art and imagery preoccupy the mind, but never in one-note, calcified ways. The film erupts around the linkages of human form and self-obsessed imagery (one of our very first images is literally a reporter watching himself on the screen, and Julianne Moore’s famed naked walk is preluded by paintings of naked women, rendering her – the artist – as just another image or object). Altman is so busy testing new means of connecting and redistributing individuals that the film attains a manic, fluid texture (fittingly, water figures throughout) that never ossifies into funeral rigidity like so many other hyperlink films; the characters are jumping off points, suggestions, rather than conclusions of end points like in most films.
The dexterous nature of Altman’s willful abandon of conventional narrative linkage creates a film that counterposes the forlorn with the absurd, the crestfallen with the vigorously vituperative, actively intimating counterintuitive means of knowing for three hours rather than prescribing a programmatic overarching narrative with a defined end point. In stark, diametric opposition to embalmed nature of most of the films to follow in its wake, Short Cuts is defined by a resistance to stagnancy that unshackles the film to follow its momentary whims, and to realize in its cinematic architecture the caliber of the momentary whims that structure life itself.