Why the birthday party didn’t happen

Michael Wood

Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a long, loose-looking movie, but the looseness is an effect, carefully worked for. Plenty of themes recur throughout – insecurity, chance, rage, damage, the long, bruising war between men and women – and although there are fourteen or fifteen stories here (based on extrapolated from ten stories by Raymond Carver – the handouts and the introduction solemnly say nine stories and a poem, but the so-called poem is also a prose narrative), they are intricately stitched together, like a miniaturised Comédie humaine set in Los Angeles.

A doctor in a story of his own (about his delayed reaction to his wife’s ancient infidelity) has dinner with a couple from another story (about the husband discovering the corpse of a young woman), and in yet another story he treats a child who has been hit by a car. The child’s parents are the neighbours of an aging jazz singer and her difficult, cello-playing daughter. Both families have their pool cleaned by a character in another story whose wife specialises in talking dirty on the telephone for money. Two of the women in different stories are sisters, and speak to each other regularly. The husband in one story is sleeping with the ex-wife in another. The pool-cleaner is a friend of a joky fellow who is attending horror make-up school, learning how to convert human faces into images of disaster. This fellow in turn is married to a young woman who is the daughter of the couple who ... You get the picture. There are helicopters at the beginning, borrowed from Apocalypse Now, spraying insecticide rather than napalm, flying over all the lives in the film; and everyone is shaken by the earthquake at the end.

The construction is elaborate but not obtrusive in the viewing, and it has an echo in the way Altman moves us from scene to scene – sometimes by sheer jumps, sometimes with cuts which are an elegant mockery of natty editing, from a slow zoom onto a glass of milk, for example, to a shot of a glass of milk being knocked over on television in someone else’s house. There are marvellous connections in the soundtrack – a door slams on the beat of the jazz number to be played in the next scene, a song continues over a scene which has no narrative link to the jazz club – and the result is to make all the scenes potentially part of each other, however separate they initially seem. The film is casually artful, rather than just casual or just artful. This is something the title suggests too: these are quick takes on the slow messiness of life, but they are also elements of counterpoint, one take commenting quickly or obliquely on another.

Altman, in his introduction to the volume of Carver stories, says his film lifts the roof off different family homes and watches what happens – and it ‘could go on for ever’. It doesn’t go on for ever, and the roofs are not lifted off at random. Altman also says he sees ‘all of Carver’s work as just one story’, which is entirely wrong about Carver, but a good way of thinking about this film. It doesn’t have Nashville’s berserk energies, but it is trying for the same kaleidoscopic feel, and it often gets it. It’s a more ambitious, if less witty film than The Player, and when it goes wrong it’s not because Altman loses control or strays too far from Carver; it’s because he can’t resist a certain sermonising gloom. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s companion for the last 11 years of his life, and a great fan of Altman, says in her introduction to the screenplay that the finished film evokes ‘a purgatorial world which is probably franker, even more lost than Carver’s – and therefore more anguished for its unattended wounds’. That is a way of putting it. It seems to me that Altman has bought the Hollywood mythology he so brilliantly mocks in The Player. When he speaks of avoiding Hollywood and Beverley Hills for his setting, going for the ‘untapped Los Angeles’ of Downey, Watts, Compton, Pomona, Glendale, the very idea has Hollywood written all over it; and he really does think there is a gritty integrity in the very notion of the unhappy end – that unhappiness, unlike happiness or anything else, is meaning, you don’t have to understand it or interpret it. Carver’s hit-and-run driver, for instance, becomes nice Lily Tomlin, who stops her car, and is relieved to see that the boy seems all right. He can walk and talk, and he refuses the lift she offers him. Of course, he’s not all right, he soon falls into a coma which lasts for most of the movie, and then he dies. In case we don’t get it, there are scenes where Lily Tomlin keeps expressing her relief that the boy wasn’t hurt. ‘If I’d been going faster I woulda killed him. Imagine. How could you get over that? You couldn’t.’ In a related story, the only one which has no basis of any kind in Carver’s fiction, the cello-playing daughter tries to talk to her jazz-singing mother about the little boy’s death, but the mother is too busy rehearsing. The cellist kills herself. Incomprehension everywhere.

The great moments in the film – there are a number of them – have a quite different, far less dogmatic feel. They are all about violence, and often about incomprehension, but they don’t have the flattened, that’s-the-way-it-is tone that the film slips into when it loses its edge. Perhaps this was Altman’s idea of a screen equivalent for Carver’s prose deadpan. Tess Gallagher says she suggested to Altman that he restrain his irony, but he may have taken the hint a bit too far. ‘Ray never raised himself above the plights of his characters,’ Gallagher tells us she told Altman. Well, no, but he never treated the plights of his characters as just one of those things either, and still less as just one of those expected things, the lousiness you’re always on the look-out for. Without his irony, Altman just seems morose.

Altman and Gallagher insist quite rightly on the freedom of the film from the prose fiction. It is ‘based on the writings of Raymond Carver’, the credit says, it’s not the film of the book(s). In some cases – the story of the child and the accident (and the birthday cake that was not picked up), for example – Altman is very close to Carver’s material; in others – the story of the couple who look after another couple’s apartment is one – he takes the faintest starting clue; in others – say the story of the wife’s old infidelity – the basic situation. This is straightforward, but muddled a little by the publications and publicity accompanying the film, which suggest a near-identity between film and fiction, as if we were getting special value here, the film, the book, and a film which is mysteriously the same as the book and different. The film trades on its association with the great dead writer, all the greater for being dead; the publishers get a new book by producing, as a collection, the stories used for the film (they come from four separate Carver works). So it’s probably worth saying that Altman’s virtues are almost always different from Carver’s, and that there is also a sense in which the two men’s views and practices are not just different but opposite.

I’m not sure Altman himself quite sees this; there is a Hollywood haze about his vision of Carver. Carver captured, Altman says, ‘the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour’; but Carver’s people are not wonderful or idiosyncratic. They are dreadfully ordinary, steady, predictable. Little cracks open up in their lives, bewilderment or pain seeps through, but then the story ends, the cracks close, life goes on. A man who feels his life is falling apart looks at his face in a mirror, and can see nothing of what he feels: ‘A face – nothing out of the ordinary.’ Carver wants us to see what that face won’t show; what Grace Paley calls ‘the little disturbances’ lurking unseen in the ordinary. Altman, as he says, has always been interested in the ‘mystery and inspiration’ of human behaviour, and many of his characters in this movie start out pretty exotic: one flies a helicopter, one is a TV news commentator, another is a professional clown; a couple who are schoolteachers in Carver become a doctor and a painter in Altman. There’s the cellist and the jazz singer; there’s talking dirty on the telephone, the horror make-up school. The implication, also interesting but quite different from Carver’s, is that people with strange trades have ordinary hang-ups; that ordinariness creeps up even on the seemingly extraordinary; or that ordinariness doesn’t exist. The side-effect of this view, though, is that when the working classes or the unemployed do show up in the film, they look remote and exotic, as if they had wandered in from a world beyond the borders of our expectations. Lily Tomlin is a waitress, for example, and Tom Waits is a working and then an out-of-work chauffeur. Altman thinks highly of their performances, which were ‘so superb’ that he felt the other actors might have trouble in living up to them; but they are actually one of the weak things in the movie, talented people hamming up roles that offer them nothing but clichés. The actors who are superb are all those – Anne Archer, Madeleine Stowe, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Frances McNormand – who get a chance to underact, to play through despair and calamity as if they were just everyday weather.

There is a moment in the film which is pure Altman, as good as anything he has ever done. The man who is learning horror make-up practises on his wife, makes her look like a viciously battered and finally murdered woman, and takes photographs of her in this state. It is a game, but very close to all kinds of things that are not games. When they pick up the photographs, they arrive at the same time as a man who is collecting his fishing photographs, including several shots of the dead young woman he and his friends found floating in the river. The people fetching the photographs bump into each other, drop their bundles, pick up the wrong set. They glance at them and see: a battered woman instead of their own drowned corpse; a real corpse instead of the imagery of their own nasty make-believe. Each person thinks the other is weird beyond belief; experiences his/her own weirdness as normal. No one says anything, although each notes the licence-plate number of the other. None of these people has killed anyone or hit anyone; only found a body and made up an image. But of course someone killed the girl in the river, and many pictures of battered women are pictures of battered women. Altman’s very playfulness is eerie here. Of course there’s a difference between violence to women and the discovery or the imitation of such violence. But a difference is not a divorce or an unalterable separation, and we can ask how the discoverers of the body feel, and what they do; and about the nature of the pleasure found in imitation. The movie multiplies these questions by its relentless if sometimes comic images of male posturing and female complicity; of wreckage and far from comic sudden murder.

The questions are delicately posed in the film’s most indirect and understated story, which concerns the reaction of the wife of one of the men in the fishing party. The men spend about four hours hiking to their fishing spot, find the body before they have even started to fish; decide not to hike back straight away and report their find; leave the body where it is; put in a weekend’s fishing, then report the discovery. The husband comes home, makes love to his wife. It’s more or less the only happy bit of sex we see in the film: ‘this is healthy and attractive sex,’ the screenplay says rather primly. Afterwards he tells her about the body. She is disturbed, but sympathetic, and then says what seems to me, in the blossoming of its implications, the most haunting line in the movie. ‘What’d you do? After you got her out of the water.’ she can’t imagine they didn’t get her out of the water, still less that they didn’t report the death for a couple of days. She clearly feels an unspeakable outrage was committed in this response to the dead girl, and the fact that her husband is a nice fellow makes it all the worse.

There are dozens of things to think about here, and the movie lets us think. ‘She was dead,’ the husband says in self-defence in both the story and the film. What was he supposed to do? In the story the wife says: ‘That’s the point. She was dead. But don’t you see? She needed help.’ If we can’t help the dead, perhaps we can’t (or won’t) help the living. Altman is close to Carver here, and the story is as amazing as this piece of the movie. But Altman can show us, as the text can’t, what the wife’s stunned unhappiness, a form of grieving, actually looks like. She drives miles to the funeral of a person she doesn’t know. In Carver, her drive indicates to us how vulnerable she feels, at large in a world of men: she could be that girl, any man could be her killer. In Altman, the camera just watches her at the funeral parlour, moving about her house, going out to dinner; it invites us to do what we can with her occluded feelings. The suggestion, I think, is not that even decent men like her husband are potential killers of women, but that no man is likely to have a real idea of what the violent death of a woman means. What it means to women, of course, or even what it means to men, since all we can do, mostly, is fidget in embarrassment and avoidance. Innocent men are not the murderer’s accomplices, but they are often his compatriots, they inhabit quite comfortably the gendered mythology he has turned to nightmare. Altman’s irony plays a part here too, since the wife is the person who is a professional clown, who on other days wears a coloured wig and funny clothes and make-up, and entertains at children’s parties. We catch the clown mourning on her day off, but more important, we see the short cut from clowning as work to mourning as private exorcism, understood by no one. It’s shorter than we think, like the path from the birthday party that doesn’t happen to the murder we don’t see.