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Not So Super 'Cuts'

By Erica L. Werner

Not only is Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" a travesty of the Raymond Carver short stories upon which it is based, it is also a completely boring and stupid movie. It is embarassingly tacky, facile and reductionist, and it's also three hours long. As RuPaul says, take me to the vomitorium.

Altman based the film's nine interweaving narratives on his (mis)reading of Carver's ouevre, taking a set of poignant midwestern vignettes and turning them into a heavy-handed Hydra living out its pointless existence under the scorching sun of Los Angeles, the city where dreams die, or whatever. Setting "Short Cuts" in L.A., with all its metaphorical baggage, was a huge mistake on Altman's part, though only one of many. The main one was probably in trying to translate Carver's fragile stories to the screen in the first place.

Altman's characters zig-zag around L.A., crossing paths in a series of coincidences so contrived they are reminiscent of a Thomas Hardy novel, and accumulating moving experiences at a mind-numbing rate. They are united by common experience in the opening and closing sequences of the film: in the former case by the medfly scare, in the latter by an earthquake. (This portrayal of L.A. as a shimmering and perilous mirage is so hackneyed and off-base as to induce nausea.)

The film cuts from one storyline to another via the most ridiculous segues imaginable: A door closes in one house and opens in another, for example, and in one particularly mind-boggling instance a character pronounces the word "dead" and the scene switches to a mother who is mourning the death of her young son.

Altman is juggling so many characters that he can only impress us with their identities by hitting us over the head with their most superficial characteristics. Even so it takes at least an hour and a half to get straight that Ralph and Marian (Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore) are the doctor and painter; Stuart and Claire (Fred Ward and Anne Archer) are the fisherman and professional clown; Ann and Howard (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison) are the bereaved parents, and so on, ad nauseum.

To make matters worse, the actors are pretty much interchangeable. Almost all the female characters look like sweet, young aspiring actresses (which in real life they probably are), and almost all the male characters look like beefy, red-neck jerks (which in real life they may or may not be, for all I know or care). And though we might eventually figure out who's who, at no point do we give a damn.

The only inspiring performance is given by Lily Tomlin as an aging and codependent waitress in a diner, and even her gritty spunk is ruined by the movie's banal pseudo-plot. Altman apparently interpreted Carver's point as something along the lines of: people lead day-to-day lives and experience moments of joy and moments of misery and are sometimes happy and sometimes sad. This might well have been Carver's point, in fact, but the film fails where the stories succeed because the latter are tinged with a feeling of bittersweet nostalgia that the former totally lacks. With unforgivable crassness, Altman hangs Carver's tender, private moments out to dry under the harsh, voyeuristic glare of the cinematographic lens.

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