Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#497: Short Cuts

Directed by: ROBERT ALTMAN
1993, TSPDT Rank #474

To those familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia, Short Cuts should seem more than a little bit familiar. Magnolia is a great film in its own right, but it does seem less original in concept and structure after seeing this film - both feature large ensemble casts, a sprawling episodic collection of diverse stories and characters who can all be connected to each other via circumstantial events and relationships, and end with a climactic twist of fate beyond the characters' control, which affects all of them in different ways. However, Short Cuts is much more ambiguous in its implications - in fact the film doesn't really make any clear implications at all. In my experience of Altman's work, this is fairly typical - he makes the narratives in his films feel engaging, entertaining, and organic, but often without a clear motive or argument to push on the viewer. The events and characters in an Altman film never seem to be there to provoke specific reactions from the viewer, and there are a lot of ambiguities all around which produce a myriad of feelings, but remain difficult to pin down or analyze. However, this all comes together in Short Cuts as a sort of free-flowing narrative tapestry. The cast is about as good as it gets for an ensemble film (Tim Robbins, Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Waits, Jack Lemmons, Lily Tomlin, etc.), and the stories play like a lot of interesting bits from life. But even so, Altman's style isn't exactly in the realist vein. Instead, it's more of an experimental approach, mimicking life by presenting overlapping dialogue and events, while being intricately constructed to create a seamless and immersive effect for the viewer. This isn't a haphazard jumble of scenes - it's a meticulously crafted film which focuses on the drama which can be derived from the smallest of details in any given life. For anyone like myself who finds the small details and unexpected changes to be the most interesting things in life, as well as film, this is one hell of an epic, and one of the all-time landmark examples of the ensemble film. On the other hand, those less open to the virtues of this type of film will probably find it to be a rambling, pointless bore - and that will be their loss. Short Cuts is a prime example of a film which was not appreciated upon its release, but has stood the test of time and has eventually gained belated recognition of its genius. This is a fate to which many of Altman's films have been destined, but at least we now have the technology to look back and reassess films like these, which went under the radar on their first time out of the gates and still deserve to have their day in the sun. This film especially deserves all of the praise which has been lavished upon it in recent years, and I hope it continues to grow in stature as more people discover it for the first time in the years to follow.

It has taken me an usually long time to write this post. Short Cuts is a film which made a big impression on me, and I have spent a long time agonizing over what I could possibly say to give this film, and Altman's work in general, the type of appreciation it deserves. I don't know if I've succeeded or not, but if this post convinces just one or two more people to give this film a chance, I feel I will have sufficiently done my job. Thanks for reading, as always.

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