Fresh from the success of his “comeback” film The Player (1992), Robert Altman tackled what is perhaps the most ambitious film of his career (at 189 minutes, it’s his longest), Short Cuts (1993). Working with sometime collaborator Frank Barhydt (Health), Altman created a sprawling tapestry of a film from the writings of Raymond Carver. The multiple stories overlap, reveal things about the other stories and occasionally interconnect. The easiest way to think about the film is, I suppose, to consider it the Los Angeles version of Nashville (1975), but that doesn’t do full justice to Altman’s film. It’s more than that.
Assembling a huge cast of names that most filmmakers could only dream about, Altman put together an intricate series of dramas that finally play like one gigantic drama. It is perhaps the most seamless fragmented film ever made. The unifying factor lies in part in the film being about the connectedness of things and people — even when they don’t know it or the connection is tenuous. But the film goes way beyond this. It speaks of and to something deeper in its picture of how disconnected these connections are. It’s not just that the random events are related to each other, it’s that the people experiencing them are unaware of the connections. Since Altman takes an omniscient view only the film sees the connections. The characters themselves don’t have this luxury.
Not only do the characters not see the connections, they’re oblivious — as we all are — to anyone’s dramas and motivations but their own. This is really the theme that runs through the film, though it’s specifically brought home dramatically in the scenes with Bruce Davison, Andie MacDowell and Lyle Lovett, and comedically in the photo booth mix-up. But it’s there throughout the whole film.
Stylistically, Short Cuts is pure Altman. It has that trademark offhand feel to the proceedings. That’s partly due to the way in which he shoots the film, but it’s also in the atmosphere he creates for his performers. They’re given room to breathe and to craft their characters from the ground up. Nothing feels calculated. It just seems to be happening. Of course, it isn’t “just happening,” but creating that illusion is the mark of Altman at his best.