425 and Done: Robert Altman for Short Cuts



The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List

Jane Campion for The Piano

James Ivory for The Remains of the Day

Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father


I need to get into the habit of promising “in the next couple of days” when I end these projects, as I seem to have a refractory period between the viewing of my very last film and writing about it. Reluctance for it all to end, perhaps? Sheer exhaustion? Or the challenge of grappling with the great work I choose to save for the finish? I suspect the latter most of all, as I keep mulling over Short Cuts in terms of everything Robert Altman ever directed and every film the Academy ever nominated for Best Director. I’m still swimming around in the world Altman created, but rather than ruminate forever, I suppose I ought to get words down and draw this quest to a close.

I’ve explained at length my reasons for saving my favorite director’s Last Great Film for the end of my Best Director project. After engaging with dozens of different directorial visions over the past month, Altman’s film seemed to have sneakily lain in wait just for me. I’d played out the movie countless ways in my head over the last several years, but I couldn’t have anticipated the moments featuring Alex Trebek, Captain Planet, or the 1960s Batman TV series that seemed to speak directly to me. Before I get too solipsistic, though, I know that these sensations were just symptoms of another rich cinematic reality Altman had put on the screen, one enmeshed in another time and place (medflies, smoking, photo kiosks) even as it connects directly to mine.  Altman’s eternal project is to create a piece of reality, replete with details and hidden connections only we can appreciate but also extending far beyond the edges of the frame.  As I sat down for the beginning of Short Cuts, I was struck by how long I’d gone without seeing an Altman film for the first time, and how wondrous it was to see his familiar technique moving in strange and new ways, tracing a new world to explore.

Though planned before The Player was made, Short Cuts seems to fit around the periphery of the Hollywood insider’s world, sidestepping the familiar stomping grounds of the film industry in favor of a lived-in, anonymous city. I’m sure someone could pinpoint the scattered neighborhoods in which the film takes place, but regardless, setting is unusually incidental to Altman. Instead, his priority is to braid together Raymond Carver’s short stories into another dense tapestry of interconnected lives. I’ve often praised Nashville for generating two-dozen characters with more depth and complexity than most protagonists, but the couples that wander through Short Cuts, drawn from Carver’s parsimonious prose, are more concealed. Possessing the dialed-down weirdness of Twin Peaks, the characters put on an inscrutable performance most of the time, hiding their selves behind a TV persona, a casual exhibitionism, a faked injury. Their humanity emerges in unexpected flashes: Julianne Moore and Jack Lemmon’s rueful monologues, the dazed hug Andie MacDowell gives to Lori Singer. The film is dotted with these little sites of clarity, folded into the endless maps than accompany the film’s closing credits.

The most curious distinguishing characteristic of Short Cuts is the discipline with which Altman manages his narrative world. All of his films have an organic quality, but here the usual improvisational, suggestive flow of the story is replaced by an intricately managed system of fragments. Unusually, Altman refrains from gathering all of his storylines in his famously busy ensemble scenes; instead, he keeps them separated on the surface and stresses a more pure artist’s vision of their unseen connections, the titular short cuts of his chosen editing style. Anticipating the hyperlink style that would soon become the vogue among Oscar-nominated screenwriters (Stephen Gaghan, Guillermo Arriaga, Paul Haggis), Altman’s deliberate match cuts, serving as portals between the storylines, suggest the forever unknowable connectedness of life in a big city. The helicopter route and the earthquake, the two universal events that bookend the film, providing merely arbitrary starting and stopping points for the narrative, touching on all the characters’ lives without providing the barest hint of closure. I once heard Altman say that there are no real beginnings or endings other than birth and death, and I commend him for crafting another window into an unfinished and endlessly enticing world.



So, does Robert Altman rack up one more victory on my Oscar ballot? I’m glad to confirm that the grand old maverick is indeed in contention for the prize for each of his five nominations. In this fourth of his nods, however, Altman found himself in a tough race, littered with esteemed nominees who had nonetheless never won the big prize. I think I can put to the side Jim Sheridan, returning for his second time with the imprisonment docudrama In the Name of the Father; and James Ivory, rounding out his trio of nominations with the exquisitely repressed The Remains of the Day. However, Altman’s sprawling Los Angeles mosaic faces tough competition from two other vast sagas: debut nominee Jane Campion for the antipodean drama The Piano, and fellow four-timer Steven Spielberg for the Holocaust epic Schindler’s List.

In the end, the race really comes down to Altman and Spielberg, veterans from opposite ends of the New Hollywood era. It’s strange indeed to think that in 1993, the Academy had yet to honor either of these towering figures in American cinema. Spielberg would grab the first of two trophies that night, while Altman would gracefully accept an Honorary Oscar in the narrow sliver between the completion of his final film and his death at 81. In a tough call, I must stick with my vote for Spielberg’s magnum opus. Spielberg’s film is not perfect, and it’s tantalizing to think what Billy Wilder might have done with the project, or what Stanley Kubrick might have wrought from The Aryan Papers, had they not withdrawn in deference to the mighty Spielberg. Despite his foibles, though, Spielberg is one of the few who could have a successfully realized the colossal and intimate scale of the human tragedy, and he deserves credit for making the definitive dramatization of the defining crime of the 20th century. Altman comes in a respectable second in this battle, but he retains his position at the very top of my directorial pantheon and contributes yet another classic to my personal list.


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