In Nashville, Altman's camerawork is fluid and impatient; in Short Cuts he lingers on a single dramatic encounter, often for an uncomfortable amount of time. An astonishing example of this technique comes when Marian (Julianne Moore) tells her husband (Matthew Modine), in meticulous detail, the story of how she committed adultery—an upsetting scene made perverse by the fact that she is not wearing any pants. The voyeuristic shock of her red pubic hair makes the viewer uneasily complicit in her sexual transgression.
A subtler, but equally excruciating scene takes place in a hospital waiting room where Howard (Bruce Davison) is attending to his son, who lies in a coma. To his alarm, Howard's own estranged father (Jack Lemmon) shows up. In a monologue that lasts nearly six minutes, Lemmon describes how he ended up sleeping with his sister-in-law (Howard's aunt)—an act that would ruin his relationship with his wife and son.
It's a remarkably nuanced episode, for while Lemmon is a sympathetic, defeated figure, he is also unreliable. He wants to earn his son's forgiveness, yet he defiantly insists, against reason, upon his own innocence. In Davison's face we can see that he has heard another version of the story—his mother's—that contradicts what his father is saying. He may be desperate to avoid revisiting this sordid episode, but he can't help but listen to his father's story.
The main subject of Short Cuts is not, ultimately, Los Angeles. If anything, Nashville, with its show-biz hucksters, gray eminences, wannabes, and divas, is a better portrait of L.A.; in an interview Altman once described the country music capital as "a microcosm of the Hollywood syndrome." Short Cuts is a more personal film. It cuts deeper, exposing the secret motives that make us hurt the people we love.