In 1992, Robert Altman released the film The Player to wide acclaim. In 1993 he followed that film with Short Cuts, which many consider to be his masterpiece. For Short Cuts, Altman used nine stories and a poem by Raymond Carver as the inspiration for the film. Carver is known as one of the greatest short fiction writers in American literature, mainly focusing on blue collar people and the melancholic issues that they face in their lives. Carver did an excellent job of bringing out the pettiness and pathos that people feel in any normal day with a mixture of humor and sadness. Certain stories are actually pretty funny, but almost all of them are sad. All of them have some darkness around the edges. None of this would be surprising given that Carver’s stories are as funny as they are bleak. Carver specialized in writing about the working class, because he was working class. He wrote about alcoholism, because he had a drinking problem. Carver turned his world into stories, and Altman understood that world enough to put it onto celluloid.
Short Cuts is a film about living in Los Angeles as filtered through Altman’s interpretation of Carver. The movie crisscrosses from several different characters in varying capacities with a lounge singer, policeman, TV personality, make-up artist, waitress, limo driver, phone-sex operator and many more. The film weaves these stories with a bit of each story being told at a time, crossing from one to the next and then back seamlessly throughout the three hours running time. One of the vignettes, just like the actual short story, is incredibly haunting and sad, still pulling my heart strings despite my knowledge of how it unfolds. The film has a certain groove to it that the viewer is either going to latch onto or be turned off by. Personally, I love how it all unfolds, playing by its own rules the entire time.
Short Cuts was one of the releases that I was most excited about this year from Criterion. I am definitely an Altman fan, and therefore am preprogrammed to enjoy Short Cuts with all of its idiosyncrasies and interweaves storytelling. The film is closest in form and ideology to P.T. Anderson’s film Magnolia, which he openly admits was heavily influenced by Altman’s film. The film includes an amazing array of actors including Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Tom Waits, Robert Downey Jr., Lili Tomlin, Lyle Lovett, Angie Macdowell, Buck Henry, and the legendary Jack Lemmon. All of the performances are memorable with surprising turns at every corner. Of particular interest are performances by Tim Robbins as an adulterous police officer, and Julianne Moore who delivers lines for five minutes with her lower half exposed. Altman uses nudity in the film in ways that are asexual lending more reality to what is transporting onscreen, same with the sexual talk by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character on the phone while she changes a child’s diaper. Altman likes to turn sexual imagery on its head and humanize it.
At the end of the day, Short Cuts is a fantastic film for those with patience. It is not meant to be viewed by people that can not allow it to wash over them and just go with the flow. That doesn’t mean the film is absolutely perfect, with some scenes commanding the screen much more than others. That said, if you like Altman’s other masterpieces like M.A.S.H. and The Player,Short Cuts deserves a place on your shelf. I know that I will find myself watching this one every couple years, and I am glad that now I can rewatch it in high definition.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an extremely capable job on the brand new 4K digital transfer of the film. The movie looks reference quality. That said, Altman’s techniques he uses tend to lend a softer look than many viewers will be accustomed to. This means that even though the image is off of a brand new 4K transfer, it will lack detail. This was simply Altman’s style and can be seen in other films by him, most notably in Kino Lorber’s release of The Long Goodbye. That said, this is a significant upgrade over the old DVD, and well worth the double dip. At the end of the day, this is the image that Altman intended and though not the most incredible for depth of field, it definitely looks exactly like you would expect.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a well done, albeit not very intense,2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The new 2.0 Surround track actually sounds better balanced to my sensibilities than the 5.1 track, but I am sure this will be a point of contention amongst fans of the film. The film is for the most part pretty subdued minus the jazz score. Surrounds are most active as ways of intensifying the environment, such as during the opening scenes with helicopters and during the last ten minutes of the film. As this is a dialogue driven film, there is not much to blow away people in terms of spectacle. That said, the music flowing through the film has been given plenty of room to flow through your speakers and make any screening room feel like a jazz club. Another solid transfer by Criterion. Also, dialogue is very clear which is great considering it is an Altman film.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Reflections on Short Cuts – a conversation between director Robert Altman and actor Tim Robbins from 2004. This is a fantastic conversation. Man, I wish Altman was still alive and kicking! (1080p, 28:56)
Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country, a feature-length 1993 documentary on the making of Short Cuts.- It doesn’t get much better than an entire hour and a half long documentary. There are tons of interviews here with cast and crew and Altman himself. Also, interviews with Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, who was very involved in the filming. Well worth your time. (1080i, 1:30:00 – this is basically SD due to limitations of the filming.)
To Write and Keep Kind, a 1992 PBS documentary on the life of author Raymond Carver. – This is a fantastic feature with a lot of background information on Carver and good interviews with those who knew him best along with excerpts of interviews of Carver himself. The interviews with his two loves in his life really paint a full picture of the artist. (1080i, 56:48 – once again this is essentially SD)
One-hour 1983 audio interview with Carver, conducted for the American Audio Prose Library – This is an excellent feature for fans of Carver with one of the few recordings of Carver’s voice. The man himself speaking for almost an entire hour. (Audio only, 51:47)
Original demo recordings of the film’s Doc Pomus–Mac Rebennack songs, performed by Rebennack (Dr. John) – three songs are included “To Hell With Love,” “I Don’t Know You,” and “Full Moon.” As a fan of Dr. John, I thought it was great to hear it the way that he originally sang these.
Deleted scenes– Three deleted scenes are provided. None are essential, but it runs less than five minutes, which is nice.
A look inside the marketing of Short Cuts – An image gallery of promotional tools, a teaser, a trailer, and six TV spots are provided.
The Bottom Line
Short Cuts rewards those viewers with patience with a film stocked full of realistic characters and situations. Watching the film makes you feel like you have been given an overview of the middle-class in Los Angeles. Altman made a tremendous work out of adapting Raymond Carver, one of my personal favorite short fiction writers. Criterion have done a solid job on the transfer of the film and have provided excellent supplements. The supplements alone are worth the price of admission with amazing features revolving around Raymond Chandler’s life and career. The film can be a bit of an acquired taste, but I still find myself revisiting it and thinking about it more often than Altman’s other films with the exception of The Long Goodbye which I just love. I highly recommend giving this one a spin as soon as possible and then reading the Carver stories that inspired the movie. He was a fantastic writer, and Altman was a fantastic director.thank you Criterion for all of this being put together for us fans!