'Short Cuts' taps the power of little lives in the City of Angels

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The mark of an artist may be how simple he makes the complex look.

That's the key virtue of Robert Altman's brilliant "Short Cuts," which, on the way to being many things, is certainly the shortest 3-hour movie ever made. But it has a degree of pure simplicity to it -- unseen in American films in many a year -- in the way it deals with small issues honestly. And under its smooth surface, one senses the movement of large and troubling ideas.

And it's a great piece of storytelling. It glides with such dapper effervescence that it comes to feel truly magical, and its considerable technique is completely yoked to the thrust of the dramatic materials. It never condescends or traffics in cheap irony; you don't feel the filmmaker looking down from on high, amused at the littleness of little lives.

We're in the lesser precincts of the City of Angels, far from the grottos and glades of the rich and famous. Nobody's making deals, nobody's selling anybody out; it's just that dreary stuff called life, with a variety of people attempting no loftier ambition than to get by, day by day.

The ambience is definitely Carveresque as derived from the late great American short story writer Raymond Carver -- that is middle class high and low, largely (but not entirely) non-professional, hard-working, fate-fearing, locked in patterns as rigid as tungsten handcuffs, the overall sensibility being a sense of fog. It's as if the malathion dropped to combat fruit flies by a fleet of helicopters in the early seconds of the film forms a moral vapor that drifts throughout, confusing everything, turning all the blacks and whites to grays, turning heroes to fools and good men to bad ones. As brightly photographed as it is, the movie seems to be taking place in a kind of living fog bank.

And as Carveresque as it is, it's also an evocation of the real "Hell A" that may be the best in movies since Robert Towne's "Chinatown." Altman, working with a core of nine stories and fragments of several others, has deconstructed the Carver characters from the Pacific Northwest and redeposited them in Los Angeles. He's melded, composted, compacted and CuisinArted, inventing a kind of mythical substructure so that, in some small way, the characters are all interrelated (in the stories, they stood apart) and their lives interpenetrate in ways they don't know but we do. The movie, in other words, gives us God's eye view, but none of His power. We can't change a thing, and in this untidy and terribly unfair universe so much needs changing.

A small boy is hit by a car. The woman who hits him is a waitress (Lily Tomlin). She wants to take him home but he refuses, saying he's all right. Yet when he gets home, he decides to take a nap and in no time is in a coma. The drift toward oblivion, nudged by such a fragile whiff of fate, is infuriating. And, with his parents (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison), we watch in horror. It's so unfair! Yet nothing can be done.

Nothing can be done. That's the general drift of the pieces, in a variety of tones, but most of them haunted by death or its opposite, sex. You know those old favorites, Eros and Thanatos, together again! In another story, three quite decent men (Fred Ward, Huey Newton and Buck Henry) go fishing, where, in the far beauty of the mountains, they find a grim relic of the complexities of city life: a dead woman, just under the surface. What to do? They ponder, worry, try and deal with it, and do exactly what they would do in real life but in no movie ever made: They do nothing. (That's the metaphorical meaning of the film, by the way: death, just under the surface of the beautiful.)

A jazz singer in a club through which some of the characters drift yammers on about men, forms a musical chorus, and pays no attention as her daughter (Lori Singer), a cellist, drifts closer and closer toward suicide.

Even in playtime, there's a whisper of grim mortality: Adulterous makeup artist Robert Downey Jr. practices on his wife (Lily Taylor), giving her the bruised face of a murder victim, and leading to an exquisite moment of confusion, when she gets Buck Henry's pictures of the dead woman and Buck Henry gets her pictures of herself in the beaten-woman makeup.

Confusion, confusion, everywhere. Did I say fog? Think of the gunsmoke that drifted across the fields at Waterloo and Gettysburg, thrown up by fusillades from the war between men and women, who can never really understand each other. A neat touch: Working people Fred Ward and Anne Archer go to dinner at upper-class physician Matthew Modine's and Julianne Moore's exquisite hillside house, and in a flash Altman makes the point that the two men are much more comfortable together than either man has been with his spouse.

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