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Flatland

Short Cuts (1993)

Julianne Moore in Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS (1993) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Places have power. They are imbued with it through the stories we read and watch. For many, London is Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, one a fiction, the other a truth that has evolved into legend. Paris is Javert and Cosette lost in the June Rebellion; or Notre Dame, whose conflagration triggered the collective memories of even those who’ve never been there. New York can be the romantic one of Woody Allen, or the violent one of Martin Scorsese. How many of us first experienced the Arab world as young children through the magic of Aladdin?

Stories make myths of locales. They are the maps of the legends once the legends have become fact.

Los Angeles is no stranger to this kind of mythmaking. It is Hollywood, where young starlets come to make it big or get crushed by the powerful few. From the original A Star is Born to La La Land, LA is the place to get discovered, or it’s the noir crime dramas of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, a seedy cesspool of murder and vice.

Yet for all the cinematic romance Los Angeles is imbued with, it’s still just a place where people live. Not Hollywood big shots or down on their luck P.I.s or drug kingpins or naïve ingénues from the cornfields of the Midwest, but normal everyday people with jobs and families and the same kind of worries that plague the rest of us.

Of course, the same kind of worries that plague the rest of us is not a particularly sexy elevator pitch, which is why it was up to Robert Altman to make Short Cuts, the least sexy collection of stories one can tell about a place that possesses so much mythic power.

Short Cuts is not the LA of his previous film, The Player, which took Hollywood in all its glamorous crassness and made it both intoxicating and revolting. If Hollywood and Beverly Hills are LA’s vital organs, then Short Cuts explores the sinew and tendons that hold the city together, the intermediate places with forgettable names where people live and play and work and die, as far from the glamour of the movie biz as one can get while still being in LA County. None of the 22 characters in Short Cuts work in the film industry (though one is studying to be a makeup artist). The sole celebrity sighting is Alex Trebek, who is gawked over like a reclusive star making a once in a lifetime appearance. In Short Cuts, Altman has taken Los Angeles, stripped it of its mythic power and drained it of its seductiveness. He has reduced it to monochromatic suburbia.

It is within the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest that these stories originated, in the dreary, half-intoxicated workaday lives depicted by Raymond Carver. If Short Cuts strips Los Angeles of allure, Carver strips the short story of its superficial beauty. His unadorned, emotionally distant prose reflects the sad, passionless lives of the lower middle-class with which he populates his stories. These tales are not merely unsentimental, they are anti-sentimental. And yet, like the film they would inspire, there is a deep well of soulfulness living just below the surface of his spare narratives. It’s not that Carver and Altman don’t care about their creations—they do, deeply—but they refuse to telegraph emotional punches. The characters in both the stories and the film are depicted in all their shameful nakedness, just a bunch of morally questionable people not unlike those we encounter every day in our own lives, often gazing back at us in the mirror.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lili Taylor in SHORT CUTS | New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

By transposing Carver’s stories to Los Angeles, Altman has fashioned a narrative that is less about the Los Angeles of our collective imagination and more about the real LA most of us don’t care to know. It is neither glamorous nor decrepit, neither the urban jungle of New York nor the American pastoral of small towns. It’s the nondescript, unadorned, and anonymous land that makes up so much of the country. Altman has flattened the city of angels into a domestic zoo for mortals, removing that which makes LA unique and leaving that which makes it common; a flat, suburban Anywhere.

Or, as Altman states in the introduction to the Short Cuts companion book: “We wanted to place the action in a vast suburban setting so that it would be fortuitous for the characters to meet…we wanted the linkages to be accidental.”

Accidental is a good word to describe the crisscrossing lives of the Angelinos in Short Cuts. Where luck is heavy with mystical power, and where coincidence is about how we interpret the concurrence of events—as accident points not towards outside forces but to our own culpability. Bad luck is not my fault; strange coincidences are outside of my power. But accidents are almost always caused by our own human carelessness.

When Doreen hits Casey with her car, this is not just two characters from different worlds colliding. This is her not heeding the “children crossing” sign, and it’s Casey not looking where he’s going while crossing the street. When Earl meets the three fishermen who ogle his wife, the conflict stems not from the chance encounter but from Earl’s reaction to it, one that propels his story forward. The discovery of the dead body by the fishermen, which they interpret as bad luck—not bad luck in that she’s dead, but insofar as that their fishing trip might be ruined—morphs into accident once they choose to not report the body; that choice to take bad luck and allow it to become accident plays out later when Stuart tells his wife about what they found and what they did with what they found.

Casey’s accident leads to so many other choices made by characters: the baker making the crank phone calls; Howard’s father reentering his life and then once again abandoning him; Zoe—whose strained relationship with her mother is as taut as a dry rubber band—committing suicide, not as a result of Casey’s death but because of her mother’s blasé reaction to it. Tess does not tell her daughter to kill herself and is not responsible for Zoe’s suicide. But just like Doreen and Casey’s disregard for the rules of the road led to his demise, Tess’ indifference to Casey’s fate leads to her own daughter’s death. These accidents don’t happen because of animosity or enmity, but out of the everyday carelessness of supposedly civilized people. People who should know better.

Not looking both ways when crossing the street. Not listening when a loved one is in distress. Not recognizing in another’s voice fear and anger and loneliness. It is Lois, the phone sex operator, not grasping how uncomfortable her job makes her husband—or, perhaps, not caring. It’s Paul, a huckster in seersucker trying to rationalize to his son the terrible choices he made 30 years ago instead of being there for him when Howard’s own son is in the hospital. It’s people talking past each other, over each other, speaking in an English that might as well be a foreign language for how little they actually hear. It’s this indifference to not just the needs of others, but to others, period, that causes these characters so much suffering. They may be able to see things, but they lack the ability to perceive them.

Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits in SHORT CUTS | New Line Cinema

The limits of perception is one of the themes in Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland. In it we are introduced to the Square, a two-dimensional being living in a two-dimensional world and perceiving the world as such because that is the only way he can. When he is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional word, he can only see it as a two-dimensional circle.

Los Angeles is Altman’s flatland canvas and the characters who live there do so blind to the fact that there is a larger world outside their own. We can see what they cannot: the clown who is stopped by the cop is married to the sister of the artist who will later host dinner for the clown and her husband; the jazz singer and her daughter live next to Casey, who is hit by a car driven by Doreen, whose daughter is friends with Jerry who services the jazz singer’s pool; and so on. While the audience may wish to find meaning within these connections, Altman is having none of it. The connections are there because that is how the world works; it’s not fate but naturalism at play. We live in a large tapestry of which most movies only show a small sliver. Altman gives us a panorama not as metaphor for destiny, luck, or chance, but as the basic machinery of the world.

There is an even deeper blindness that Altman draws our attention to. If the characters never notice the wider world around them it may be because they rarely notice the small ones in which each of them reside. They live their lives on automatic, seeing without perceiving (or in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “talking without speaking…hearing without listening.”) This blends perfectly with another of Altman’s trademarks: overlapping dialogue. This technique has been praised for its naturalism, but it’s more than just how people talk: it’s also about how people listen—or don’t listen, as the case may be.

The couple who are housesitting for their neighbors are told not to smoke in the apartment, but they do so anyway, a choice which leads to them taking over the apartment completely. Zoe tells her fellow musicians that her mother, Tess, has Alzheimer’s; Tess has not even mentioned Zoe’s existence to her bandmates, and yet the two of them live under the same roof. Listen to how Claire interrogates her husband about his casual disregard for a dead body, and listen to him try to rationalize what he knows was indefensible behavior. They speak as if in different worlds. When Paul tries to reconcile with his son, he explains how he got caught 30 years ago in bed with his wife’s sister. He calls it an “unlucky day.” To him it’s not his willful disregard for his marriage vows but simple bad luck that turned his life to shit. Doreen praises luck for preventing her from killing the boy with her car. Only we know how wrong she is.

Living your life on cruise control, at times asleep at the wheel, rarely taking note of that which is right in front of you, leads directly to these accidents. We don’t intend for them to happen, but we do little to stop them once the collision courses have been set and the engines begin to rev.

SHORT CUTS | New Line Cinema

This casual neglect that is the precursor to accident can be seen in two of Short Cuts’ recurring motifs. First, there is the indifference shown to children, who are depicted less as people and more as luggage to be toted around. Lois does her phone sex work right in front of her kids. Gene stomps through his house screaming at his wife while his children cling to his leg, but they could be as insignificant to him as their yapping dog. (He later kidnaps the dog he hates so much and only brings it back when his children’s pleas become more annoying than the dog’s incessant barking.) Betty splits her time between two men while trying to avoid Stormy, her ex-husband. She doesn’t seem to realize how confusing this must be for her son (who calls one of her mother’s boyfriends by the other’s name). When it’s Stormy’s weekend with his son, he’d rather burden his wife with the boy (and thus sabotage her romantic day with her boyfriend) than be a father to him. All of this neglect is balanced out by the one set of parents who are focused on their child but who have no power to help him: the Finnigans, whose boy lies in a coma.

Then there’s the omnipresence of television, there to babysit children and adults alike. Altman begins and ends many scenes on a TV screen, not one necessarily being watched, but one which serves as a necessary distraction from life. The film’s portrayal of television as constant companion is akin to our own pervasive obsession with our screens. One can only imagine a three-hour long Altman film in which 20 characters live-tweet and photobomb the end of the world all the while doing nothing to prevent it.

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Two of Short Cuts’ direct offspring have different takes on chance and coincidence. Both Magnolia and Crash are set in the menagerie of Los Angeles and focus on the interconnectivity of people’s lives. But they emphasize the influence of chance and luck and what those concepts mean to the characters, while Short Cuts eschews ascribing to the gods’ actions that are best attributed to people.

Magnolia establishes its fascination with chance in its prologue by exploring three coincidentally charged urban legends. The film is steadfast in maintaining the idea that outside forces play large roles in our lives. Nothing says this better than the rain of frogs during the film’s climax. Like the earthquake at the end of Short Cuts, this act of nature affects everyone simultaneously. But where the amphibious downpour triggers characters to change their lives, all the earthquake does is allow those in Short Cuts to perform a soft reboot. Not much really changes. Hell, it wasn’t even the Big One.

In Crash, a film that draws more of its sheen from the flashier Magnolia than the anti-glamorous Short Cuts, characters interpret events almost as omens, as if the world is speaking to them in a serendipitous code. In so doing, Crash, favors the potency of outside forces in lieu of the difficult choices its characters must make.  

Where Ricky Jay’s narrator in Magnolia keeps saying that things are “not just a matter of chance,” and we are led to believe in Crash that people’s fates are intertwined, Altman takes the mystic powers of chance and fate, coincidence and luck, and, like the city that serves as his film’s backdrop, drains them of power. Instead he gives the characters agency over their own lives—lives which, no matter whether they see them as connected or not, they are still quite able to fuck up all on their own.

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Julianne Moore in SHORT CUTS | New Line Cinema

It would be disingenuous to say that nobody learns anything or that no lives are changed for the better in Short Cuts. Yet mostly what we get are reprieves. As Sherri predicted, Gene has returned to her, but for how long? Doreen and Earl share drinks, laugh, dance and wait for the end of the world, but when it doesn’t come we have to wonder, how long until they are at each other’s throats again? Perhaps Stuart and Claire will be able to reconcile; same for the Wymans, getting properly drunk and idling their night away in a hot tub may have been the cure either couple was seeking. The solitary moment of grace is that of Mr. Bitkower the baker. Upon hearing that his crank calls have been going to the family of a dead boy, he realizes that the cruelty he had intended has been unintentionally magnified. He understands this because he is able not just to hear but also to listen to the pain in a mother’s voice. It is in the act of listening that he can hear her pain and feel it as if it were his own.

The Los Angeles of Short Cuts is not the Los Angeles of anyone’s dreams—or, for that matter, anyone’s nightmares. It is still LA, a land of eternal sunshine but plagued by the medfly and the next earthquake. It’s still the LA where a man can unironically pick up a woman with the line, “Are you an actress or a model?” But it is also an LA not so very different from many other places in the country. True, coming away from Short Cuts it would be easy to dismiss Angelinos as selfish and crass, but the behavior portrayed in the film can be seen in suburban New Jersey, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and the Upper Midwest. It’s not hard to understand why so many make the pilgrimage to Southern California never to return to their hometowns: no matter where you look, people are pretty much the same all over.