Thursday, February 22, 2007

Short Cuts

Short Cuts [1993]
Written by Raymond Carver

Short Cuts [1993]
Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt
Directed by Robert Altman

Raymond Carver is the master of what is known as the "short short story." His works are simple and concise slices of blue collar life in the upper Northwest. They're like abbreviated O. Henry's...with more drinking. Lots more drinking. There are a lot of sauced up characters stumbling and driving through the world of Raymond Carver.

There's a sort of unfinished quality to the stories. Not that the stories seem hastily dashed off (far from it), but rather that we as readers don't get the closure traditionally associated with well-composed literature. In Carver, problems don't get resolved; the reader merely turns away after a certain point. Sometimes we turn away with the bitter sting of irony, sometimes with a tear.

There is a danger in reading too much Carver in too short a span of time. It's the same danger that one has listening to, say, a Ramones best of. Taken individually, a single Carver story or a Ramones song is a masterpiece. Taken in large doses, a sort of sameness creeps in. With Carver, the stories begin to lose their subtle stings and joys. Oh look, here's another unhappy couple, content to drink away the pain of [insert tragic event here]. But while there are similarities between characters, you never get the feeling that any two people would cross stories and meet each other. Each story is like a private prison for its inhabitants. They can't escape their own lives; how can they break into someone else's?

Enter Robert Altman. Altman's Short Cuts transports Carver's characters to LA and attempts to interconnect them. People become friends, relatives, or lovers to other people. New faces appear, most notably Jack Lemmon in a scene-stealing (but ultimately unnecessary) performance. It's a "jazz variation on Carver," as press materials accompanying the film helpfully intone. But that's just a hipster cop-out way of saying it's a loose adaptation of the original works.

Pretension aside though, I did find myself liking the film. Despite passing the three hour mark, I never felt bored during the proceedings. The cast is, for the most part, excellent. I didn't quite believe Lyle Lovett as the harassing baker (here is where Tom Waits would have really shined), but it was still a passable performance. Plus, we get to see Julianne Moore's pubis, so things ain't that bad. But there is a price to be paid for the accumulated power of this jazz symphony of rocky relationships. The power of certain stories is sapped by their extension. The bitterly excellent (especially for anyone who's lived with a dog they hated) "Jerry and Molly and Sam" is stretched to the point of farcical dilution. And changing the story's main character into Tim Robbins' pompous cop leads us away from the real meat of the piece. Art-film kookiness for its own sake starts to creep in. Where just about everything in Carver seems believable, the longer Altman stays in this universe, the less believable things become.

Ultimately, it's an aesthetic trade-off that the potential reader/viewer must make. To put things in drinkin' terms (as that would suit the average Carver protagonist far better than any sort of artsy-fartsy lit crit bullshit), do you wanna get drunk by sipping wine or by downing shots? Either way, you're gunna end up on the floor.

One final criticism: there was way too much Captain Planet in this movie. For those of you who might of missed it (you lucky few), Captain Planet was an environmentally friendly PC cartoon show about a superhero whose multi-culti band of teenage teammates wandered around stopping what the theme song referred to as "bad guys who like to loot and plunder." It was absolute crap that no one really seemed to like, but which kept getting support because of its unbearably positive message. In Short Cuts, Frances McDormand's kid is a huge Captain Planet fan. I actually felt sorry for Tim Robbins' cop as he's being bored to death by this little brat going on about Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Torturous!

Sympathy for the piggies, kids....

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