Short Cuts d. Robert Altman (1993) Spine: #265 Blu-ray release date: October 18, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
For fans of Robert Altman and The Criterion Collection, 2016 has been a great year. In the spring Criterion released Altman’s 1992 film The Player. Earlier this month, Criterion gave us a long hoped for release of Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And this past week, Criterion upgraded their old DVD release of Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts, giving us a striking new Blu-ray of the film that’s based on nine Raymond Carver short stories.
I myself am a big fan of Robert Altman, so all of these have been exciting, though I was tentatively wary of Short Cuts. Why? Well, I say this knowing some of you will never look at me the same way ever again, if you ever look again at all: I’m not a big fan of Raymond Carver’s work. I don’t hate it. I believe that I’m just not connecting with it, but I’ve tried several times, most recently a few years ago when The Library of America released a well received volume of all of his work, and I have usually failed to feel their power. The thought of an ensemble drama — a concept that’s only worked for me a few times — crafted from these stories didn’t excite me the way an Altman film should. But . . . it is an Altman film. Could he use the material in a way that worked?
Well, I should say he can. I’d never seen Short Cuts prior to this release, and I’m now more hopeful about my future with Raymond Carver’s work. I’ve never particularly enjoyed reading Carver’s minimalist but lengthy conversations in which characters philosophize while they abuse one another. But Altman crafted a magnificent screenplay, co-written with Frank Barhydt, which keeps the intensity, but, by the very nature of the large ensemble drama (the film runs just over three hours), he transforms the minimalist, hyper-focused work of Carver into a more maximalist exercise that helped me navigate the nuances of chance, loneliness, and brutality that I’ve never quite procured from the individual stories. I’m excited to revisit Carver’s work to test whether I’m now more attuned to his method and stories or if it really is just Altman’s mastery of cinema that made these disparate and desperate characters come alive.
It helps a great deal that Altman assembled a large cast of great actors, many still ascending the heights of their 1990s fame, to play the rather pathetic people whose lives are used to examine our penchant for stupidity and self-destruction in our quest for some kind of meaning.
Tim Robbins, for example, plays a rather despicable policeman who cannot come up with convincing stories to cover an affair he’s having, so instead he relies on the believability of the unbelievable. The stories are more fun, anyway.
Frances McDormand plays Betty Weathers, the other woman. In Short Cuts, though, Betty is not just the other woman; she has a life of her own, and her husband has his own story.
Betty’s sister is Marian, played by the always great Julianne Moore. We’ll first meet her at a cello concert where she invites the couple next to her, strangers, to dinner, horrifying her snobbish husband. The cellist, by the way, has her own story as well.
Tom Waits, meanwhile, plays an alcoholic cab driver, married to Lily Tomlin, who will hit a child, who’s the son of a TV talking head, who . . .
This tapestry of characters is wonderfully strung together, even if my briefest of introductions above makes it feel like it could get complicated. Altman has control of this large cast. And it is large: see the Criterion cover for the complete list of names . . . Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell, Matthew Modine, Madeleine Stowe, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Jennifer Jason Leigh, etc. Altman’s no stranger to the ensemble cast, and he knows how to help us get from the beginning to end without getting terribly lost along the way.
But that doesn’t mean the characters don’t get lost. There are a few moments of connection and empathy, but for the most part Short Cuts shows us at our selfish worst, failing to reach out, or, rather, reaching out only in an effort to hurt and destroy. Indeed, the film’s most poignant moment of connection — taken from Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” — is completely subverted by deliberate acts of violence in the final section of the film, followed by a natural disaster that seems to wash it all away anyway, suggesting that relief and pain are not particularly lasting. They may form a cycle that, when we look at a whole community, seems to go on forever and ever, but, individually, it’s only a matter of time — maybe soon — before it’s all done.
It’s this cycle, played out collectively and individually, that makes Altman’s film so powerful for me. By interweaving these stories, Altman not only looks at the individuals involved but he also examines the hidden pain going on next door, pain we probably will never know about, and that we’d probably quickly forget even if we did. We have our own problems, after all.
The Criterion Collection edition: This edition comes on two Blu-ray discs. The first includes the long feature, and the second includes the hefty supplements.
- Additional Scenes: The rough cut of Short Cuts was apparently around six hours long, so there’s a lot of material that was removed. This edition includes two scenes that were completely deleted as well as one alternate take. Personally, I don’t care much for deleted scenes and didn’t get much out of the inclusion of these here. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that I still haven’t read the unexpurgated versions Carver wrote before they were edited down to his trademark brevity. Speaking of brief, perhaps it’s a mercy these are each around two minutes long.
- Music Demos: These are original demo recordings of the film’s songs by Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack.
- Luck, Trust & Ketchup: This is a feature-length (1:30:02 hour) documentary about the making of the film by Mike Kaplan and John Dorr.
- Marketing: While this section includes the typical trailers and ad campaigns (including photo of many print campaigns), it also includes a nice introduction.
- To Write and Keep Kind: This is a 1992 PBS documentary on the life and work of Raymond Carver. Running for 56:48 minutes, it nicely emphasize the second part of that “life and work” formula. This documentary really does a good job touching on Carver’s work itself, making more than just a simple biographical documentary.
- Raymond Carver: This is a 51:47-minute, 1983 audio interview with Carver conducted by Kay Bonetti. Again, while they discuss his life, the focus is more appropriately (to me) on the work.
- Reflections on Short Cuts: This is a 2004 conversation between Altman and Tim Robbin originally recorded by The Criterion Collection for their DVD release of the film. It runs 28:56 minutes.
- The discs come with a fold-out insert featuring an essay, “Short Cuts: City Symphony,” by Michael Wilmington.