Robert Altman
Robert Altman; drawing by David Levine

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 MAS*H 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, and life at ground level resumes, a pattern of rebounding day-to-day personal injuries: aggressive and self-inflicted, accidental and on purpose, to body and soul—a full range, from a tiny exchange of disrespect between a student and a teacher to murder with a rock.

The actors must play every way of deferring or deflecting painful reactions in themselves and each other—“sustaining injuries.” Not all the characters come into contact with the doctor (Matthew Modine), the man with the two-year-old marital injury, or his wife, a painter (Julianne Moore). But he’s like an ideal the others share: there’s nothing he can’t handle with bedside manner—a cocktail of fatalism, nice limits-setting, and voice control. Modine gives him a glow that seems the projection of others’ hope, so they don’t pick up on their sense that something is wrong about it, and don’t question it. (Reason for malpractice suit: Doctor looks like a forged Watteau?)

The pesticide scare is soon yesterday’s news, giving way to the routines of families, lovers, cronies, ex-spouses. There’s one loner, a baker (Lyle Lovett); if his large but pinched face and traditional white toque suggest some era with guilds and moral codes, that is accurate. Disdaining a mother (Andie MacDowell) who has nothing better to do than draw custom designs for her child’s birthday cake, he could be a Caldecott illustration for Mother Goose, punishing the dish for running away with the spoon—no half measures. So forget him, for now. Other characters linger when they meet, coincidentally, in the coffee shop, or are flagged down on the highway patrolled by a motorcycle cop (Tim Robbins). His higher mission is to deal with family turmoil caused by himself, and to deal with it now, by scapegoating the dog.

This situation, from the story “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” is the only one that doesn’t adapt well. Expanded to develop the wife, and told in fragments that merge with other situations, it loses the pleasure and import of Carver’s structure—two 180-degree mood swings, one cycle of the man’s effort to reform:


[H]e was not going drinking, was not going calling on somebody, was instead going to do away with the goddamn dog and thus take the first step toward setting his house in order.

I believe I have made the gravest mistake this time. I believe I have made the gravest mistake of all…. He saw his whole life a ruin from here on in. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog. He felt he was finished if he didn’t find the dog.

The movie diverts him into new material, like his funny alibis for his infidelities: he’s a cop, Robbins reminds his wife, so his secrecy about his schedule is for her safety. Later, the wife (Madeleine Stowe) confides to her sister, in a lovely scene of feminine candor and one-beer escapism, that she finds his alibis funny. Now, wait—it’s one thing to be in the audience, but she’s his wife. Such slight, continuous readjustments of everyone’s attitudes approach Carver’s poised tone. The movie dog has chewed up a thirty-five-dollar belt; might the cop have otherwise used it on the children? Carver’s story stopped short, far from home, in a quiet standoff between man and dog. The last few words—“Some dogs you just couldn’t do anything with”—hint at uncontrollable impulses in the man. But a story and a movie are different animals.

Those differences are well exploited where Altman radically changes—even reverses—the scale of a story’s elements. Since Carver himself did exactly that, scale was the right factor for Altman to work with. An extreme example is “Collectors,” where Carver put a nameless man in a house containing, largely, lint. Altman (as if imagining how things got so minimal) has magnified the lint to a houseful of furniture that the man reduces to virtual lint by cutting it to bits with a Skilsaw. The man has become a helicopter pilot named Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), in his ex-wife’s house. Gallagher indicates only that he has to go on sawing so as not to do something else. The sense is Carver’s: his first-person narrative tells an invisible joke that only the teller understands.

Short Cuts needs the comfort of its warmest characters, played by Andie MacDowell and by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, the coffee-shop couple, who go on binges of reform and reconciliation. (All the actors made the characters’ mere names seem unimportant. Mrs. Slater didn’t show up, for no known reason, but here’s Frances McDormand.) When a little boy (Zane Cassidy) is knocked down by a car, he insists he’s fine, but with the shame and stubbornness that injured people often feel. As Tomlin, the driver—possibly hung over or wanting a drink—gets out of the car to make sure he’s all right, her whole body falls into an instinctive crouch of sympathetic mimicry. Later, MacDowell, the boy’s mother, is at the hospital; he’s in a coma, and her dark eyes go to whatever might take her far past the moment—she begins even this death-watch from a position of gratitude that nothing can go wrong.

The characters’ reaction times, peculiar to them, can be baffling. Carver’s people are like artists or inventors alone in knowing how their systems work. They lose track of what else they know. If it wasn’t in their design, it must be random. Carver sees both the destructive and creative results of their bad timing. When the car accident to the little boy makes his mother forget to pick up his birthday cake, the baker sees only an arbitrary insult from an inconsiderate universe, and retaliates with a series of hostile, anonymous phone calls to the bereaved mother. For her, these are unmotivated horrors, and she doesn’t figure out the caller’s identity—it just comes to her later, a revelation. These particular characters pursue their reactions to the point of the compensation described in Carver’s title, “A Small, Good Thing.”

The initial caricature of the baker highlighted the small transaction in his shop, so it’s evident that he saw the mother’s concern for detail and has forgotten. Carver didn’t say this—the story is from her viewpoint. But in such ways, Altman has refocused Carver’s clarity so it isn’t lost in the emotional details and personalities filled in by the actors. On screen, whatever presence Altman has as a guide is in his own reaction time. One moment is suspended, allowing reflection—Oh, no, this is the big one, the gravest mistake of all. Another is minimized—a silly phone conversation, barely audible, far from the camera: an intuition is there, but not yet. The caller is Robert Downey, Jr., as a movie-makeup student who practices bloody slasher effects on his girlfriend and uses a dowdy married buddy as a foil for his own daring. Downey finely balances the obvious and the covert. All along he seems peripheral, but his sexual confusion and mixed-up loyalties are the movie’s final question mark.


In contrast, a young mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has locked herself into an attitude: tough enough to make extra money selling phone sex while her children and her husband, the pool man (Chris Penn), are in the same room, impassively absorbing her words and noises. If it isn’t organic phosphate falling on them from a helicopter, maybe it’s nothing. There’s no way to interpret them by going over their heads to consult the director’s dramatic irony. Altman isn’t offering any. A man can do only so much.

Nevertheless, it’s been said that he makes these characters add up to a jeremiad about Los Angeles. Carver’s Pacific Northwest setting has indeed been changed to Southern California. Altman gives some reasons (more room for many characters meeting accidentally, business logistics) in his otherwise ingenuous or secretive introduction to the Short Cuts paperback selection of Carver’s stories; what Los Angeles makes available on the screen is a psychological effect much like the effect of Florida in The Godfather, Part II, when Michael Corleone left the sunny Miami highway and went into the dim confines of Hyman Roth’s bungalow: Not safe.

To set one’s house in order by nailing everything to the floor is possible, but two examples in Short Cuts are cautionary. The two oldest people give fixed accounts of themselves. One, a vocalist with a bar band (jazz singer Annie Ross), is fearless with risky songs of near-ludicrous emotional confrontation; but trying for rapport with her unhappy daughter, she retreats into a faded version of How My Lover OD’d (I Shouldn’t Have Let Him Get High, But He’d Cut His Finger). In counterpoint, a father (Jack Lemmon), estranged from his son for decades, is at last ready for a definitive act of healing histrionics. He seems afraid that his monologue is unbelievable, so he adds touches of smut as tokens of honesty; his confession of wrongdoing comes out like phone sex but with a plot. (Ross controls her performance by her command as a singer. But Lemmon seems used, as in Glengarry Glen Ross, to produce reliably false notes; he seems especially patronized in a movie so aware of how people are hurt by rude customers, high-handed doctors, supercilious spouses, oblivious parents.)

The son might forgive his father anyway, sort of. Compensation for injury is shown to be unreliable, crazy, and incomplete. Sometimes it’s not even known who makes amends for what. A tense-looking salesman (Fred Ward), who has been away on a fishing trip, tells his wife (Anne Archer) that he and his friends fished for days while the body of a dead woman lay in the stream. His reaction is, What else could they have done? The wife’s is, There’s nothing else to think about but this. Altman’s reversals of scale perfectly serve the story. He adds imagery of the fishing trip, much of it silently eloquent. And with the elimination of details about the wife’s past, no clues for interpretation threaten the pure privacy of her reaction—a present-tense near-grace, like Carver’s title, “So Much Water So Close to Home.”

One thing Robert Altman has in common with Raymond Carver is a detached, even satirical view of reform. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the frontier West offered a fresh start: the cycle of “money and pain,” as McCabe kept calling it, would be broken with steam engines and river water for hot baths for Mrs. Miller’s cleaner prostitutes; and then people diverted all that energy into the same two choices, ice or fire—him dead in a snowbank, her aglow in the opium den. The Altman of Short Cuts is not indulging such facts of life with lush indirections of his own. Finally, he takes hold of the camera and—with Carver’s taste for revelation and with the simplicity of film’s first fresh special effects—gives everybody a good shaking.

This Issue

November 18, 1993