Name of film: SHORT CUTS
Director/Writer: Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on the short stories of Raymond Carver
Year of production: 1993
Length: 187 minutes
Source: DVD 1402
“I look at all of Carver’s work as just one story, for his stories are all occurrences, all about things that just happen to people and cause their lives to take a turn.”
The feature film Short Cuts is Robert Altman’s quilting of disparate short stories by Raymond Carver into one interweaving narrative. Joined by a series of incidental and coincidental ties among the various characters, and bridged by any number of visual, aural and thematic elements—including helicopter flying over LA in the opening sequence, the lounge singing of a mother and the cello music of her daughter—characters from nine of Carver’s short stories fill one world in suburban Los Angeles that shrinks via growing narrative crossover into the idiom, “it’s a small world.”
No one short story translates into one discrete unit on film, but rather each forms a narrative thread in a broader schema, each appearing and disappearing in sometimes cooperative, sometimes competitive interactions. Carver’s story “Neighbors,” in which one couple in an apartment complex agrees to housesit for another couple, translates into the heading for chapter five of the feature. Indeed the chapter features the two neighboring couples, but it doesn’t represent the beginning of that specific narrative thread nor does it represent only that set of neighbors.
The chapter actually begins with a shot of a pool and a pool man who turns to look for the source of cello music coming from, as he discovers, the second story window of a a neighboring house. It is then that the camera cuts to the story of the house sitters, who are in the process of receiving final instructions regarding plant care. The dolly shot that follows Bill Bush, the husband, from his bedroom to the window where he sees his wife at the neighbors’ receiving instructions shows a small, cramped apartment. It becomes more explicitly apparent, though it is already implied in a previous strand of the narrative, that the Bushes do not enjoy the same lifestyle as their neighbors. In later strands the viewer understands how disparate these lifestyles are, despite proximity.
Carver’s story rests not only on the theme of economic inequality and attendant jealousy, but also on the intrigue of seeing from an intimate viewpoint another’s life and the disappointment in one’s own life that a comparison might yield. The chapter cuts back to the pool and the pool man who, though not a literal neighbor of his clients, will come to sense a similar envy or disappointment as he spies in a subsequent narrative strand, undiscovered, the cellist strip off her clothes in perceived solitude and jump into the pool. The owners of the two neighboring pools seem to know so little of each other and seem to care so little for each other’s lives, so wrapped up they are in their own, that the term “neighbor” takes on little more meaning than proximal domiciliary.
In this narrative thread, then, these neighbors can hardly comment on their neighbors’s lives, while in the thread related to the Carver story proper, the house-sitting couple can’t help but imagine the life they might lead if their lot and their neighbor’s were swapped. In both cases, “neighbors” takes on an antithetical meaning to the positive communal connotation it usually carries.
Altman writes that Carver’s stories are “more about what you don’t know rather than what you do know, and the reader fills in the gaps, while recognizing the undercurrents,” suggesting a format commensurate with that of the short film, which in limiting the time frame for the development of a narrative demands economy in the telling of the story. The title “short cuts” embodies this economy (and defines both the narrative structure, which most often cross-cuts among story lines, and the filming technique), but its usage here is nothing if not ironic, because no one chapter comprises any discrete narrative arc, and no one narrative strand can stand alone.
In this sense, too, the film is neither a “compilation” of short films nor a “collection,” and so the definitions we batted about in class fail, in my opinion, to define this feature film, which fits better under the rubric of adaptation of an omnibus of Carver’s short stories. From a Saussurian point of view, however, this failure of Short Cuts to fit the definition of the omnibus short film may do more to help define the term than anything else. It suggests that the capacity to stand alone may be the single defining characteristic of a short film omnibus. Whatever seems to qualify the shorts for compilation in one discrete unit can then be incidental or coincidental or thematic, not unlike that which ties the lives of the characters in Short Cuts together. For Altman there is more than authorship in the relationship among these narratives. “In formulating the mosaic of the film Short Cuts, which is based on these nine stories and the poem “Lemonade,” I’ve tried to do the same thing—to give the audience one look. But the film could go on for ever, because it’s like life.” If we are to call Short Cuts an omnibus anything, it is based on the concept that human experience is, though multiple and varied, so very similar.