Back when he first discovered Raymond Carver's work, Robert Altman was coming off his '80s stint as a Hollywood pariah, and he could barely get a film made. But he recognized his kinship with Carver, and he knew what his adaptation would look like: In his words, he suspected he could transform Carver's lean, focused stories about "things that just happen to people to cause their lives to take a turn" into his own kind of film. That idea might not have occurred to anyone else. Carver worked in miniature, zeroing in on small moments and unexpected realizations in the lives of everyday people. Altman typically stretches the everyday across a broad canvas, multiplying those moments until they overlap and fill it. The match-up might not seem as compatible as Altman first imagined, but the resulting 1993 film Short Cuts speaks for itself. Adapting nine Carver stories and a poem—sometimes faithfully, but often loosely—Altman finds unexpected rhymes among the lives of nearly two dozen Los Angeles residents. The characters are united by more than just geography, even though sometimes only those watching the movie see the connections.
A panicked mother (Andie MacDowell) clutches her injured son in a comfortable suburban bedroom as the camera zooms in on a glass of milk. Somewhere in a trailer park across town, a drunken chauffeur (Tom Waits) watches a television image of milk spilling as his wife (Lily Tomlin) informs him that she struck a child with her car on the way home. An arrogant cop (Tim Robbins) pulls over a children's entertainer in clown makeup (Anne Archer) and begins an obnoxious flirtation. They'll never meet again, but as Archer wonders how her husband (Fred Ward) could keep trying for trout after finding the body of a murdered girl, Robbins snatches a dog from one of Ward's fishing buddies. It would be possible to watch Short Cuts only to marvel at the ingenious structure created by Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt, but the film unfolds so gracefully that the structure seldom calls attention to itself. Instead, the attention falls on the characters as they fumble toward occasional revelations that focus their lives, and as they hurt each other in the process.
It's fitting that this double-disc set arrives at the end of a year filled with Altman reissues. Since its release, Altman has made many films—some great, some not—but Short Cuts has the tone of a valediction. Without missing a beat, he shifts from black comedy to tragedy to domestic drama to farce. It would be unfair to Carver to say that Altman improves on his source material (which is conveniently provided in a paperback tucked into a set that also includes deleted scenes, a feature-length making-of documentary, and a TV profile of the author). Better to say that he beautifully magnifies it, making a film that reveals itself as an Altman-trademark slow reverse zoom, pulling back to find a perspective that looks like the size of life.