“There is a natural tilt to the North American continent, and sooner or later, everything loose rolls into southern California.” — H.L. Mencken
Robert Altman’s 1993 “Short Cuts” is roughly built on the great Raymond Carver’s famous short stories.
But it cannot be read as anything but an Altman film.
Carver, who died of a brain tumor in 1988, drew most of his stories and the people in them from the damp mists of the Pacific Northwest, where rain and fog create a special brand of people for whom, as they say about the Irish, “rain is their natural condition.”
I suspect Altman was leery of all of that and instead took a chunk of Carver’s people and set them down in the fetid air of 1990s Los Angeles, where the hot winds blow, sear the brain and burn the soul.
Altman’s “Short Cuts” once again relates the trials and tribulations of ordinary working class people. In his much, much better “Nashville,” those folks worked at the trade of entertainment, of hustling and surviving on the bottom rungs of country music, where all it takes to please the crowds and make a decent buck is to get really good at strumming a guitar and sewing as many sequins as you can find on a cheap nylon cowboy shirt.
But now Altman takes us to Los Angeles, where palm trees catch fire in earthquakes, and magic is made in the dream world of Hollywood. In “Short Cuts,” however, only one or two of the players are involved in cinema-magic.
Altman starts off on what appears to be a dark 1980s summer night, with the locals scurrying for cover as flocks of helicopters swoop low over their bars, trailers, swimming pools and manicured lawns, spraying the insecticide Malathion to still the onslaught of the dreaded fruit fly.
Bruce Davidson, as a television producer, and his wife, Andie MacDowell, have a small son who, on his way to school, is hit by a car. Several lives will collide and focus.
Among others, a doctor (Matthew Modine) and his painter wife (Julianne Moore) will surface as the saddest pair. The funniest are Chris Penn as “Jerry the Cool Pool Cleaner” and his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a house mom who does phone sex for a living while changing diapers.
There is an alcoholic limo driver (the cult singer/composer Tom Waits) married to hash house waitress Lily Tomlin, a woman who works as a children’s birthday party clown (Anne Archer), an irate baker (singer Lyle Lovett), and a struggling makeup artist (Robert Downey Jr.)
Tough guy Fred Ward appears with the great Huey Lewis and actor/writer Buck Henry as three blue-collar boys who go off on a fishing trip and find a naked murdered girl floating in the water by their cook site. What they do about it will shock you, as it threads its way through the story.
Tim Robbins, an Altman favorite, is here as a crazy semi-comical LAPD motorcycle cop, a bellowing, philandering, brutal creep who ignores his kids and hates his dog, who hates him.
The stars, of course, never stop coming at you in an Altman film. The incredible Frances McDormand contributes another of her jewel-like characters. She went on to stun in “Fargo” and became indispensable.
You will be surprised by the sudden appearance of Jack Lemmon, as Davidson’s long-estranged father, who has come home to explain about how he regretted once having an affair with the mother’s sister. It’s the most touching 10-minute scene in the movie.
“Short Cuts” begins with the rain of Malathion on the city and ends with a major earthquake. It is as different from “Nashville,” as Nashville is from Los Angeles. The country western pilgrims seemed to thrive on hope, on the belief in luck and their personal Jesus. They tried to amuse one another and were all bonded together by the sweet sadness of a Patsy Cline and the beer and spangled humor of a Little Jimmy Dickens.
Even with comic relief, there is none of that brotherhood of the spirit here in the smoggy recesses of Altman’s LA. He gives us a dark, paranoid landscape peopled with desperate, lost figures. It is more Raymond Chandler’s city than Carver’s, and Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust.”
Despite hustling and the bloody ending of “Nashville,” I felt sad leaving it. I would hope to never see the city of “Short Cuts,” again.
J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.