Short Cuts is a 1993 Robert Altman film inspired by Raymond Carver’s short stories, not to be confused with Short Cunts starring Tom Cruise and me.
Short Cuts may be an inappropriate name for a movie over 3 hours long and not set in a hairdressers, but the drama is totally absorbing thanks to Altman’s alarmingly lifelike depiction of suburban Los Angeles. Like Nashville, there are a lot of characters here (24 to be precise) and each one is fully realised and expertly played. This is one of the biggest and weirdest casts ever assembled, including Lily Tomlin, Andie MacDowell (who has an amazing Twitter feed), Jack Lemmon (reprising his Glengarry schtick), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Tom Waits, Huey Lewis and a dog.
As a filmmaker Altman consistently rejects the idea that life is one story, your story. His films stand in brilliant contrast to the standard Hollywood pictures that follow one or two protagonists, where side characters fulfil their obligations to the plot before vanishing in a puff of celluloid. This doesn’t seem to tally with Altman’s understanding of the world, even representing a kind of deficit in how we view one another. He rejects the notion of peripheral characters and illuminates the lives of others on a scale that most filmmakers wouldn’t attempt, and for good reason. For instance when some of the characters go to watch a cello recital, the cellist (Lori Singer) is also a main character. And so is her mother (Annie Ross).
That Altman juggles all these different characters in such an engrossing way is simply stunning, telling multiple stories more successfully than most directors manage with one. The film’s flow conceals how much work must go into making something look so much like real life. Altman’s unique synthesis of humanity and cynicism feels as strong as ever, offering a poignant portrayal of day-to-day existence that’s both scathingly funny and bitingly sad. His characters exist in various degrees of existential pain, their relationships descending into chaos in a curious combination of entropy and empathy.
Altman appears to be saying that it’s impossible to know the content of another person’s life at a glance, beautifully illustrated in a sequence involving a mix-up at a photo kiosk. His film allows us to see the big picture unavailable to the characters. A big picture in every sense, this is a work of uncompromising ambition and masterful storytelling. As well as clearly influencing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (both films also star Julianne Moore), Short Cuts almost feels like an American version of the Three Colours Trilogy which started around the same time. Unpredictable, inscrutable cinema populated by characters who seem to exist beyond the film, full of small moments with unknowable consequences. Cinema that’s a cut above the rest.