The barometer for those interested in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is usually whether or not they liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Hell, it’s the question I posed to my fiancée when we were trying to figure out what to watch over the Thanksgiving holiday. The comparisons are pretty conventional; both are large ensemble films with intertwined plotlines set in California, both have a 3 hour runtime. Both even have Julianne Moore in predominant roles.
Based on short stories by Raymond Carver…and written by Altman, many of the characters in Short Cuts are reprehensible turds, let’s face it. You’ve got the policeman/husband and father of three Gene (Tim Robbins, The Player), who frequently cheats on his wife Sherri (Madeline Stowe, Stakeout), and even drops off the family dog hundreds of miles from home because he barks too much at Gene. Gene pulls over women at traffic stops to get phone numbers, one of whom may have been Betty (Frances MacDormand, Fargo), who is separated from her pilot husband Stormy (Peter Gallagher, The OC). Jazz singer Tess (Annie Ross, Pump Up the Volume) frequently drinks and never provides any encouraging words to her daughter Zoe (Lori Singer, Footloose). Limo driver Earl (Tom Waits) is a drinker who frequently berates his wife Doreen (Lily Tomlin, Nashville).
After his grandson gets hit by a car (driven by Doreen), Paul (Jack Lemmon, Glengarry Glen Ross) visits the hospital and tells his son, a newscaster named Howard (Bruce Davison, X-Men), who he hasn’t seen in years, stories that revolve around himself. The boy’s doctor, Ralph (Matthew Modine, And the Band Played On) is constantly suspicious of his wife Marian (Moore). Those are the obvious ones. You’ll recognize Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female), Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs), Robert Downey Jr. (Wonder Boys), Lily Taylor (Say Anything), Fred Ward (Tremors), Anne Archer (Patriot Games), along with Buck Henry, Huey Lewis and Lyle Lovett.
Short Cuts seems to be a more sophisticated version of Magnolia. The characters in Short Cuts tend to internalize their emotions a bit more, but the approach to the film is one of professionalism, and with Altman’s direction speaking for itself not only here but in his past work, you don’t have to have the character’s emotions told to you, you know what’s going on. Upon further research, the stories that Altman adapts are actually separate short stories that he has gracefully intertwined, so that there is a great deal of believability when a character from one story would meet another.
You watch the characters in the film as they are, and not what they appear to be, and the fact that their positions in life are better than they deserve make things more startling when you see their dark side. With this film and The Player, both films received praise and acclaim that effectively returned Altman to favor among the studios that had turned their backs on him more than 10 years earlier. Short Cutsappeared on almost every critic’s top 10 lists, including some for the best movie of the decade. Along with other famed directors like Bergman, Kurosawa and Renoir, Altman is another director Criterion has produced multiple DVD releases for this year, and Short Cuts comes to DVD in the most recent batch of Criterion releases.
There are 3 soundtracks that accompany the film, a music only soundtrack that showcases the jazz and other music in the film, and soundtracks from the 70mm and 35mm releases. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn’t too active. While the opening scenes (with the medfly helicopters) sound very good, the surround speakers are seldom used through the movie, even during the jazz songs. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix sounds much better and far more active, and would be the better choice to go with quite frankly. Fans of the music will like the music only track on the disc too.
Criterion’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for Short Cuts is very clear, and is the usual outstanding Criterion job. The picture is crystal clear and there are a wide variety of colors throughout the film, and each comes through well.
The 2nd disc is for the extras, and Criterion has done an outstanding job with them. 3 deleted scenes that run just over 4 minutes are included (1 of these scenes is an alternate take), but they don’t really add anything to the film. The music demos for the film are next, as Dr. John performs three of the songs that Annie Ross performs in the film. What’s cool about the songs is that various artists were approached to write songs for Ross, some of the musical credits are from Elvis Costello and U2’s Bono.
Without a doubt, the centerpiece of this disc is the making of special entitled Luck, Trust and Ketchup, which centered around the film’s production. At 90 minutes, virtually all of the cast share their thoughts on the film and spend some time posing for paintings, and that work shows through the piece. You also see how Altman works on set and with his actors, and he also spends a lot of one on one time sharing his thoughts on the film and how it relates to some of his others. While many of the actors talk about the Altman experience and their impressions of him, one would gather that the one with the most insight into Altman would have to be Buck Henry, who played one of the hikers. His thoughts seemed to be the most “intellectual.” Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher appears often through the picture, as Altman had wanted to produce a film version of his stories for awhile before the chance presented itself. Ross, already an established performer outside of film, is showcased as well, along with the musical process employed for the film, and the feature ends with Gallagher presenting Altman with some of Carver’s old clothes. Of all the making of features I’ve watched, this is the smartest of them all, since there are no CGI effects to dissect or stunts to do a multi-angle piece on, everyone talks about film, and working with one of the greatest American directors ever. It’s the kind of feature that inspires you to watch the film again, even if it’s over 3 hours. It’s recommended viewing.
Next up is a feature produced by the BBC called Moving Pictures. It is a 20 minute look at the film compared with one of Carver’s stories, and a couple of the characters in that story who appear in the film (Robbins and MacDormand) share their thoughts on Carver’s work and also read some excerpts of his work, which are immediately followed by the equivalent scenes in the film, which is pretty good.
The marketing section of the film includes a brief text introduction, followed by 70 posters for the film, along with the teaser, trailer and 6 TV spots. Moving onto Carver, a PBS produced documentary on Carver entitled To Write and Keep Kind is a look at Carver’s origins, along with his successes. It doesn’t shy away from the bad side of his life when he drank heavily, but the last half of the piece centers on his relationship with Gallagher, and his resurgence as a poet, before his untimely death in 1988 at the age of 50 from cancer. Accompanied by some of his works read in voiceover (and some by Gallagher herself), the feature also includes some interview footage from Carver himself. It’s a pretty good look at a writer I was unfamiliar with before, but am now curious about, and may pick up some of his work.
Speaking of Carver interview footage, there is an audio interview of Carver included as well, which centers on his literary work. Wrapping up the disc extras is a half hour conversation between Robbins and Altman, which covers Altman’s work and philosophy on directing, and Altman recalls some things from the film’s production as well (the boy hit by the car was a stuntman’s son, so he knew how to fall, jokes Robbins). Robbins at least said he rewatched the film before speaking with Altman, which was nice, since the two have worked with each other before (in The Player), the conversation goes very well and is very fun to watch. The most obvious, but coolest extra inclusion is of course, Carver’s stories, which are included in this set, along with an introduction by Altman. So simple, but yet, so cool. Big ups to Criterion for this extra.
Far and away, this set is exhaustive for any fan of Altman, and the $39.95 SRP from Criterion is a bargain considering how loaded this set is. The movie itself is superb, any fan of Magnolia will enjoy this, and the amount of material on this set makes it one to own for any serious film fan.
Special Features List
- Reflections on Short Cuts, a new 25-minute videotaped conversation with Robert Altman and Tim Robbins
- Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country, a 90-minute documentary on the making of Short Cuts
- Segment from BBC television’s Moving Pictures tracing the development of Raymond Carver’s short story “Jerry, Molly and Sam” for the film
- Hour-long audio interview with Raymond Carver from 1983
- To Write and Keep Kind, a PBS documentary on Carver
- Deleted Scenes
- A look inside the marketing of Short Cuts, featuring trailers and more than sixty print advertising campaigns
- Original song demos by Dr. John
- An essay by film critic Michael Wilmington and a guide to the music
- Special reprint of Short Cuts, the Vintage Books companion collection of Raymond Carver short stories