Review: Short Cuts

Robert Altman’s 1993 comedy-drama, Short Cut, takes an interesting approach on book adaptations. While most adaptations tend to focus on one story, this film combines several of Raymond Carver’s short stories to create a film that encompasses greater meaning than from the stories separately. The film’s narrative structure and its use of Altman’s texts cleverly explores the prevalence of infidelity and emotional neglect between people of a wide range of socioeconomic classes.

Short Cuts explores the conflicts and lives of numerous couples and families living in Los Angeles. The plotlines explored include: a couple concerned over their young son injured in a car accident, an older couple whose marriage is rocky due to alcoholism, two younger couples torn apart due to accusations of infidelity, and a young cellist craving for emotional affection from her distant mother. The characters in these stories are connected to each other through familial ties, friendships, and public performances.

The film effectively weaves many different storylines in an engaging and thought-provoking way. This narrative structure is achieved by constantly cutting back to different characters and having characters of different storylines interact with each other. This keeps up the pace of the film. There was an equal level of urgency for each story, and none of the plotlines felt unnecessary. The stories that were more developed than others had greater conflict, and therefore were more engaging to watch. As a whole, all of the characters in the film were introduced and concluded by large-scale environmental events through the city-wide spraying of pesticides and an earthquake, respectively.

An important element that contributes to the film’s narrative structure is its integration of Raymond Carver’s texts. Many of the storylines shown are derived from Carver’s short stories. Some of the themes in Carver’s work include urban isolation, infidelity, frustration, and anger. The emotions his characters experience stem from external events, such as their socioeconomic class, family dynamics, and childhood events. These same themes are included in the film, particularly infidelity. Many of the characters cheat on their spouses and are unable to appropriately communicate their emotions to each other. For example, in one subplot, a cop tells ridiculous lies to cover up his multiple affairs, much to his wife’s amusement. He resorts to cheating instead of discussing with his wife his discomfort and frustration as a father. In another storyline, a pool cleaner becomes increasingly jealous of the customers of his wife, who is a phone sex operator. He believes that the men are receiving greater sexual gratification than he is, but does not effectively communicate his insecurities to his wife. Instead, he contemplates cheating on her, and attempts to rape and successfully murders a young attractive girl he and his friend had planned to sleep with. By weaving these short stories into the film, Altman illustrates the pervasiveness of infidelity in the characters’ lives, despite their differing socioeconomic classes.

This narrative structure has a downside: the themes explored could have still been addressed with fewer storylines, and thus a shorter running time and the interactions between the characters don’t have much emotional resonance because there are so many subplots explored. At the moment, they’re engaging, but in the grand scheme of things they don’t have much consequence. For example, when the cellist finds out that her neighbor Casey dies from the car accident, her reaction is supposed to have some kind of emotional impact. However, this moment is lost because the two are barely seen interacting with each other. The only people who have a reaction to the child’s death are his parents, and this initial reveal to them isn’t even shown in the film.

This lack of substantial character development brings up an important point, however: that the literal story here does not matter as much. The greater importance lies in the juxtaposition of these storylines, not in the development of each individual one. By focusing more on the relations between the subplots, Altman illustrates miscommunication and emotional neglect as impediments to love.