Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Thirteen


#13 — Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
At its most distinctive and accomplished, Robert Altman’s signature style, marked by overlapping dialogue and sprawling assemblies of pointed characters, makes his films feel like they emerge rather than start. A fully-realized shared existence has been happening before the projector is ever charged into life, and it will continue to endure after closing credits have signaled that a dark shade is about to be drawn over the window of the movie screen. Altman is enlivened by verisimilitude. He is a documentarian sketching fictions. He’s not a world-builder. That implies too much phoniness. Instead, he’s a devoted observer compelled to take a panoramic view. He is alive to all the possibilities in his stories. And no matter how clearly the authorial hand is his, he is content to wait and watch. Forcing them into being isn’t an option.

There’s another clear authorial hand in Short Cuts, that of Raymond Carver. The film is based on nine short stories penned by the widely acknowledged master of the form (with a poem also drawn into the screenplay’s mix), cynical little tales about the slow, hard press of life. The stories on display in the film are about the way disappointment and tragedy mount, and humanity’s unsympathetic imperative to endure. With its continual cross-cutting between storylines, Short Cuts naturally draws comparisons to Nashville, Altman’s masterwork that helped define the lofty topographical peaks of seventies cinema. But it marvelously lacks the unity of that earlier work. Rather than the sense that he’s trying to discern the common ailment that’s weighing on everyone in a society, this version of Altman the physician is simply delivering the doom-laden diagnosis. The world is filled with misery, and the only recourse is to ignore it or maybe seek out a temporary diversion from the pain. Transcendence is for dreamers, and even they need to wake up sometime.

That may seem gloomy, but Altman builds his films with a satirist’s instincts. Along with frequent collaborator Frank Barhydt, he laces the screenplay with steel-barbed observations about the state of society and the citizens pinballing around within it. In a thematic echo of his previous film, the Hollywood hit job The Player, Altman is particularly interested in the falsehoods that people create, not just to elevate themselves in the eyes of others, but as a hard shell of protection from the condemnation of their own self-assessment. Lies are a sort of comfort food. Altman wrings bleak comedy from this, especially by making it seem like such a necessary tactic for living in Los Angeles that it’s practically municipally mandated. He and his multitude of actors take aim at their professional hometown with a merry maliciousness. I can’t think of another film with so many performances that deserve to be described with the word “cunning.” The actors all comfortably signal that they are part of a larger piece while staying keenly true to the individuality of their respective characters. It is, after all, Robert Altman’s world. They’re just delivering terrific, sometimes career-topping acting in it. They are in a master’s hands, and they know the film they’re in, like the lives it tracks, will endure.

3 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Thirteen

    1. Altman is an endlessly fascinating director. Even his weaker efforts are usually at least interesting. Though it’s from later in his career and isn’t held in same reverence as something like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts is actually a fine introduction to Altman.

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