Robert Altman might have spurned conventional happy endings in his films, but the finale of his own career was pure Hollywood. The pitch for an Altman biopic would read like a redemption tale straight out of George Cukor or Frank Capra: Rebellious, anti-establishment filmmaker of the '70s crashes and burns in the '80s, loses his shirt, sobers up, and finally returns, wiser and grizzled, with two bitter but ultimately sympathetic portraits of Los Angeles— The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993)—that win over the natives. In the final years of his life, Altman received steady critical praise, major studio funding, and an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In an essay written for the Criterion Collection's impressive new two-disc edition of Short Cuts, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington describes Altman's comeback as a "sudden cinematic re-emergence." "In Short Cuts, returning to the style and strategy of his earlier seventies movies—with their interweaving story lines, huge casts, and open-ended narratives—Altman actually topped his official masterpiece, Nashville." The claims that Short Cuts "topped" Nashville, and that Nashville's status as a masterpiece is "official," are peculiar. So is the implication that Altman's intervening films—including Popeye(1980), Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), and Vincent & Theo (1990)—were uniformly dismal. But most strange is the assertion, made by numerous critics, that Short Cuts is a return to the spirit of Nashville. It is true that both films have huge casts and interweaving story lines and take place in a single American city. Yet the similarities end there. In style and approach they diverge dramatically in ways that reveal the hollowness of the traditional critical perspective on Altman and the surprising innovativeness of Altman's late career.
The ensemble picture, with numerous interweaving story lines, is an old genre. Early examples include Grand Hotel (1932), Stagecoach (1939), and The Rules of the Game (1939), which provided inspiration for Altman's last hit, Gosford Park (2001). Altman had already made an ensemble picture himself—M*A*S*H—five years before Nashville. What sets Nashville apart is the ruthless extent to which Altman dismantles conventional patterns of plot and structure yet, in the process, manages to tell a story about America that is as vivid and contradictory as any that has appeared on screen. The film features 25 major characters—political activists; news reporters; hangers-on; and aspiring, triumphant, and failed musicians and singers—and their tales of heartbreak, insecurity, infidelity, greed, and compassion. Altman's approach is unique in the way that he refuses to develop any of these stories in isolation. Almost every sequence is a tug-of-war between multiple scenes, occurring simultaneously. Dialogues blend into one another and are interrupted by extended musical performances, television and radio reports, and the incessant political diatribes of a presidential candidate, whose van drives through every outdoor scene.
The richness of Altman's technique is evident even in the film's most mundane moments. Take, for instance, the following scene, from early in the film, in which Altman introduces several characters, subplots, and themes in a single burst of action. We see the indifference of strangers to the sadness of Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), whose wife is dying; the desperation of the aspiring country western singer (Gwen Welles) who wrongly assumes that the strange man at the counter (Jeff Goldblum, in one of his first film roles) can somehow further her career; the disgust of her friend, the cook (Robert DoQui), one of the few characters in the film who exhibits common sense and rationality; and last, a glimpse into the melancholy of political hack Del Reese (Ned Beatty). Though the scene is meticulously choreographed, the transitions feel natural. The viewer is made to feel as if he were having a coffee down at the other end of the counter, eavesdropping on the various conversations going on around him.
There is a glimpse of this layered style at certain points in Short Cuts—particularly the opening and closing sequences, during which Altman cuts quickly between different characters during citywide crises. But where Nashville is gloriously messy, a ball of tangled wires, Short Cuts feels curated, like a guided tour through an exhibition. Each scene is a vignette unto itself, an effect that derives from the film's source material: the short stories of Raymond Carver. For the purpose of the film, Altman loosely connects the different stories, but they rarely merge in meaningful ways. The film lacks its predecessor's kaleidoscopic exuberance, its lightness, and its symphonic manipulation of sound and dialogue. As a result, Short Cuts already feels dated, while the much older film continues to amaze.
But there are benefits to a more conventional approach. While there are emotionally stirring moments in Nashville—such as Lily Tomlin's patient interactions with her deaf children or the disturbing onstage breakdown of Ronee Blakely's fragile country-western star—the film never attains the emotional complexity of a scene in Short Cuts in which a down-on-her-luck waitress (Tomlin again) drives into an 8-year-old child who is walking to school. She is horrified and runs over to see whether the child is seriously injured. (He is.) But, as we later learn, she's terrified of having to pay for damages that she can't afford. In a turn of events that haunts the rest of the film, she allows the child to convince her to drive away. Tomlin passes from shock, to guilt, to denial, in a single harrowing shot.
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.