Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Venice Film Festival begins, so we’re recommending some of the best winners of the fest’s highest honor, the Golden Lion.
After toiling in semi-obscurity for much of the ’80s, Robert Altman revitalized his career when his Hollywood satire The Player bit the hand that once fed it in 1992. But his comeback wasn’t fully solidified until he quickly followed that film with Short Cuts, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1993 (among other honors). His adaptation of nine Raymond Carver stories (and one poem), transplanted into Los Angeles and using an enormous cast, is one of his most ambitious films, and maybe the best of his final two decades as a filmmaker.
The credits refer to the screenplay, by Altman and Frank Barhydt, as “based on the writings” of Carver, and that unusually broad distinction makes sense for a film that melds a distinctive literary voice with an equally recognizable filmmaking style. Altman connects characters and stories that were unrelated on the page, essentially reworking some of Carver’s fiction into a new linked collection. Some of the threads evoke Carver’s quiet, incisive portraiture more than others, like the one about a group of men on a fishing trip coming across a dead body. Elsewhere, the confrontations get louder and chattier than their source material.
These characters, largely defined through a variety of often-dysfunctional marriages, lead messy lives, which Altman suggests not just through his favored use of overlapping dialogue but in the art direction, too. Many of their houses are dotted with the debris of living: toys left out, a dog constantly underfoot, clothes on the floor (and that’s before one character, played by Peter Gallagher, methodically destroys everything in his ex-wife’s home). The cast is similarly crowded, with an ensemble that includes future stars (Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore), ’90s mainstays (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andie MacDowell, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe), character actors (Fred Ward, Bruce Davison), several musicians (Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis), and Alex Trebek (referred to more often than seen, but there for a few shots). Altman captures them through both visual schemes (he shoots a scene between Downey and Lili Taylor through a fish tank) and performative gestures, like the way Jack Lemmon’s character drops his hug-ready posture to a handshake when encountering his reticent estranged son. Short Cuts is both unsparing and generous.
It’s also, admittedly, a lot to take. Carver’s work can be achingly sad, and turning it into a three-hour Los Angeles tapestry sometimes amplifies that sadness into outright misery. But most of the time, Altman wears the misery lightly, not by trivializing his characters’ stories but by refusing to wallow. Lots of terrible stuff happens, but the movie keeps going—it’s the kind of movie, in fact, that feels like it continues well after the credits roll.
Availability: Short Cuts is available on Criterion DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.