Prisoner of Life
I wonder whether those literary readers who are intense fans of Raymond Carver will really approve of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which collects and interconnects a number of Carver's stories and poems. There's something utterly antithetical about the respective approaches of these two great American artists. Carver is a miniaturist; the people, stories and worlds he evokes are like fragile satellites, cut off from the larger world, from communities of any sort. So much remains unspoken between Carver's characters – and the pathos of his writing surely comes from the fact that Carver himself refuses to explicitly spell out the meanings of his stories.
Altman, on the other hand, is a gregarious figure, and his films are like loud parties. The central conceit of Short Cuts, managed ingeniously by Altman and his script collaborator Frank Barhydt, is that all the various story strands link up in various comic and/or tragic ways. Altman has set everything within the social environment of Los Angeles (at an early stage, the film was called L.A. Short Cuts). Here, all private life becomes inescapably public. It's not a Raymond Carver idea, but it's pure Robert Altman – and Short Cuts, a marvellous and absorbing movie, works best not as a literary adaptation but as the summation of everything Altman has done in film since the '60s.
Altman is a brilliant observer of human behaviour, and Short Cuts is his most intricate mosaic of manners. It is more coherent and intensely focused than the similarly structured Nashville (1975), which many Altman fans regard as his masterpiece. The British critic Raymond Durgnat once suggested that Altman is an explorer neither of conscious nor unconscious behaviour, but the preconscious, "of everything in [the preconscious mind] which is unknown and strewn with ambushes"; his films "upfront the mental reservations, the hypocrisies, the choices and freedoms which his characters never knew they had. (1)
This is very much the behavioural terrain of Short Cuts. It is also the common ground between Altman and Carver. No one in the film knows why they do anything, and the consequences of their actions are almost always difficult or terrible. A mother telling her daughter the sad story of her marriage falls asleep in the middle of the confession. A husband struggles to explain to his wife why he and his fishing mates just left a woman's dead body in the river for a bit while they went on fishing. (Compare this thread with the bloodless treatment it receives in a later Carver adaptation, the Australian film Jindabyne .) A long lost father strolls in on his grown son during an emergency hospital crisis, and proceeds to spill the beans about his ghastly marital infidelities. Altman is a true master at portraying squirming social embarrassment, as well as the crazy crossed wires and mismatched personal desires that make up the fabric of everyday interaction in his movies.
It has become a journalistic cliché to describe Altman as a filmmaker with a political conscience – social satirist of the American dream, and a harsh commentator on American conservatism in the post-Reagan years. Altman's films have certainly always been littered with easy jibes against authority, politics, showbiz and the media; Short Cuts is no exception in this regard. But how deep, really, does this aspect of Altman's work go? If you look at his comedies, from his first great success with MASH (1970) to his very odd, rarely seen teen movie O. C. and Stiggs (1985), you'll find a level of jokey social critique more akin to Mad magazine than Noam Chomsky. The least impressive moments of Short Cuts are those that suggest that working-class people are going crazy because there are too many horror movies and too much phone sex eroding their moral fibre.
I wonder, ultimately, whether Altman is really a political animal in his bones. I see him as a modern day Erich von Stroheim, who looks at human beings from a great, and slightly misanthropic height. The dry, ironic titles of Stroheim's films, like Blind Husbands (1918) and Foolish Wives (1922), could easily fit various stories in Short Cuts. And, like Stroheim, Altman focuses on all those bizarre communal rituals – from dinner parties to weddings – where people prove finally themselves to be, at base, animals.
Altman's dark world view seems to be that life is basically horrible, no matter what social structure is in place. Human relations in his films are always marked by betrayal, deceit, miscommunication, entropy and breakdown. In particular, Altman presents life as a cruel game with little reward for anyone involved. As Robin Wood has noted, Altman's fascinating futuristic allegory Quintet (1979) "presents his view of human existence in its most naked and schematic form: life as oneupmanship". The same principle applies, in a lighter vein, to his comeback hit, The Player (1992).
But never has Altman delved into his own private philosophy more deeply and elaborately than in Short Cuts. After all, the song that begins and ends the film is a completely explicit editorial statement on Altman's part. "I'm a prisoner", sings Annie Ross. "A prisoner of life".
© Adrian Martin April 1994
1. Raymond Durgnat, "Foreword: The Man With No Genre", in Norman Kagan, American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films (Ypsilanti: Pierian Press, 1982), p. xi. back