Even as the world’s population increases every so many seconds, this classic idiom still holds strong. And like most of the films in director Robert Altman’s filmography, Short Cuts (1993) is a prime example of how surprisingly connected our lives can be.
With a running time just over three hours, Short Cuts is an epic that follows over 20 principal characters in the greater Los Angeles area going about their middle-class lives mostly unaware of how those around them have some sort of influence on them. Because the film features such a wide range of talent, it is so easy to become attached to multiple characters (if not all). In fact, it would be a shame to single out certain performances because of how balanced the film is in terms of acting.
As the title suggests, the connections that these characters have enable short cuts to each relationship. It’s a six degrees of separation kind of scenario. Because of this, we can draw parallels between the characters much more explicitly. It’s a very satisfying formula if done correctly as in this film. However, I have not seen a film of this caliber in recent years.
Obviously a film’s screenplay would have to warrant such a meticulously designed structure. Thus, the choosing of Raymond Carver’s stories as the source material is where this film succeeds first and foremost. That’s not to say that Altman does not deserve credit where credit is due. In fact, it was Altman that chose to interlock the various Carver stories into one tightly knit universe with co-writer Frank Barhydt. And, as a result, Altman devises a piece of genre-bending cinema that is complex yet entirely engaging.
Just as how Altman’s Nashville (1975) is a fine representation of the tensions and feelings of the 1970s, Short Cuts embodies the 1990s with just as much truthful identification. Unfortunately, Short Cuts is typically excluded from most 1990s “best of” lists. Maybe this is the result of being released in 1993 when all the talk was centered on Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Whatever the case, Short Cuts speaks for the time in which it was released, an age in which mutual strangers or acquaintances weren’t so accessible as they are nowadays on social media platforms.
I sense that this will be a film I will refer to frequently in future film conversations. Immediately after I finished the film, I knew it was one I wanted to talk about and reflect on. This is due in part to the shambolic conditions in which some of the characters’ lives are left in by the end of the film, a realistic depiction of the ups and downs a human life faces before death. Like the film’s closing song states, “If you’re looking for a rainbow, you know there’s going to be rain.”
Editor’s Note: Interestingly, I came across Short Cuts by connecting the dots between the filmographies of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman. Primarily, after watching Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) I felt a strong Nashville influence. Because of this, I skimmed the Internet for Anderson’s filmmaking influences and learned that the casting of both Philip Baker Hall and Julianne Moore was provoked at least partially by Hall and Moore’s involvement in Altman’s Secret Honor (1984) and Short Cuts, respectfully.