At the outset, but not for long, the twenty-two principal characters in Robert Altman’s new movie, Short Cuts, are vibrating with relatively well-founded panic. Black helicopters flying in formations more like the Valkyrie assault in Apocalypse Now than like the hovering med-evacs in M*ASH are spraying agricultural pesticide from the sky; and in the suburbs below, people are having two reactions, in dizzying combination: (1) We’re in danger, and (2) for all we know, we aren’t. Even the TV science reporter is spinning in his trance of equivocation, and the man who cleans swimming pools won’t personally stand a hundred percent behind his company’s claim that you’re more safe in the water, which dilutes the poison.
Short Cuts is based on nine of Raymond Carver’s stories and one of his poems (“Lemonade,” in which a helicopter lifts a drowned boy’s body from a river). In the story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” Carver wrote: “They considered themselves a happy couple, with only a single injury to their marriage, and that was well in the past, two years ago this winter.” The sentence is a disclaimer; it must swallow the alarming word in the middle, a word from a diagnosis or an insurance form. Carver wrote about how people pass over or circumvent injury to themselves and each other. Often they do it so indirectly it looks theoretical. In “They’re Not Your Husband,” a depressed man, out of a job, seeing his wife crudely insulted by two businessmen in the coffee shop where she works as a waitress, finds employment—making her lose weight:
Each morning he followed her into the bathroom and waited while she stepped on the scale. He got down on his knees with a pencil and the piece of paper. The paper was covered with dates, days of the week, numbers.
A movie of Carver’s work needed to show this process whereby simple acts and objects are also abstractions. Altman has shown it—in a manner no less graphic than Clint Eastwood’s in Unforgiven, (Trying to right an uncompensated injury, Eastwood’s character ended up in the abstraction of the condensed revenge Western he delivered in the final few minutes.) But Short Cuts has no apparatus of melodrama. In Nashville, Altman used the suspense of a withheld assassination, though he camouflaged it in the environment of clichés natural to country music. Carver’s people don’t hang together as a subculture; they may just not show up at the rally, for no known reason.
Altman and Frank Barhydt, who wrote the screenplay together, saw that Carver’s characters use their energy in indirect ways that could get many of them moving and intersecting on their own steam. So the writing (and editing) makes fast, even intricate transitions that open up Carver’s meaning without adding ironies or comments. Altman’s controlling flourish with the choppers is really a feint. It passes over …