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A Complete Account of Nothing

January 19th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

Short Cuts (1993)
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Robert Altman & Frank Barhydt, based on writings by Raymond Carver
Produced by Cary Brokaw
187 minutes

Misogynistic. Realistic. Bleak. Reassuring. The worst movie Robert Altman ever directed. His best. No two opinions of Short Cuts quite cotton, but in one word, the late filmmaker’s 30th feature is exhilarating. Raymond Carver never published a novel before dying of lung cancer at the age of 50 in 1988, but he left behind 11 volumes of short stories and poems, many hinging on simple twists of fate in working class America. Altman had been sacked from a movie in Italy and on a flight home, discovered Carver’s literary world. Seeing his type of film on those pages, the director of M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and Nashville met Carver’s widow, poet Tess Gallagher, who optioned nine of her husband’s short stories and one poem to Altman. With Paramount Pictures footing the bill, he teamed with Frank Barhydt on an adaptation. The studio read it and hated it.

Unable to get financing for what he was calling L.A. Short Cuts, Altman took a gig directing a low budget black comedy titled The Player. Embraced at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival as Altman’s comeback, producer Cary Brokaw stepped in to help raise roughly $12 million for Altman to make Carver’s world a reality. At a bare minimum, Short Cuts employs an expansive yet organic cast that rates as one of the finest ever assembled. Each of the 22 players is thrown the ball at some point and — given something special to do — score. But Altman’s spry touch keeps Short Cuts from sinking under the weight of any moral imperative, a lesson lost on portmanteau films like Crash. Ebbing between light drama and dark comedy, this orchestration of human behavior is a monumental achievement. Doc Pomus & Dr. John and Elvis Costello & Cait O’Riordan wrote the sumptuous jazz numbers performed by Annie Ross in the film.

Helicopters dusting for the medfly fill the skies above Los Angeles. A news anchor (Bruce Davison) and his wife (Andie MacDowell) are concerned by the chemicals, yet their 8-year-old son Casey is allowed to walk to school in the morning. A waitress (Lily Tomlin) upset by her boozehound boyfriend (Tom Waits) accidentally slams her car into Casey, who shrugs off the accident and returns home. The boy’s neighbor (Lori Singer) is a sensitive cellist whose jazz vocalist mother (Annie Ross) is past the point of giving a damn. At the nightclub where she performs, a financially strapped couple (Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr.) receives instructions from bourgeois neighbors whose apartment they’ve agreed to housesit. They’re friends with another couple: a pool man (Chris Penn) increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention from his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a stay-at-home phone sex operator.

Casey ends up in intensive care, where his dad is visited by the father (Jack Lemmon) he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Neglecting to pick up a cake they ordered, Casey’s parents are harassed by the baker (Lyle Lovett). Casey’s doctor (Matthew Modine) suspects that his artist wife (Julianne Moore) broke their wedding vows three years ago and tries to get to the bottom of it. The artist befriends a professional clown (Anne Archer). She’s pulled over in full makeup by a motorcycle cop (Tim Robbins) who hits on her. Unfaithful to his wife (Madeline Stowe), the cop’s lover (Frances McDormand) has cut ties with her ex (Peter Gallagher), a pilot who dusts for the medfly and refuses to accept that his marriage is over. The clown’s husband (Fred Ward) goes fishing with his buddies (Buck Henry, Huey Lewis). The men discover a female corpse in the river and debate how soon they need to alert anyone.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 5,693 users: 87% for Short Cuts

Metacritic “Metascore” average among 22 leading critics: 79 for Short Cuts

What do you say?

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Black comedy · Crooked officer · Drunk scene · Interrogation · Music

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Jan 19, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Fantastic film. Such a diverse cast of characters. To me, SHORT CUTS is all about casting and man, did Altman cast so well, in particular, I love Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits as a couple – it feels like they’ve been together forever and it’s a shame that nobody has cast them together again in another film, they had excellent chemistry.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 20, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    J.D.: Short Cuts is my favorite Robert Altman film. In addition to Tom Waits, I love the addition of the Annie Ross character, using jazz and blues organically instead of manipulating the audience with music. We aren’t told how to feel about these people or their decisions. 187 minutes just flies by and its genius is that for a portmanteau film, I can’t think of any vignettes I’d cut. It all seems to fit. Thanks for commenting!

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