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Short Cuts: The Criterion Collection

Though many artists have a piece so resplendent that is it is undeniably their best, rare is the artist who creates something that can be called their most archetypal, something that manages to sum up an artistic output in past, present, and future. Robert Altman has a directorial output that spans over five decades (on television and in movies), but his 1993 film Short Cuts is one of these rare films that actually manages to express what an artist is about — his genius and his shortcomings — and explains what's helped keep the public's attention from such successes as M.A.S.H. (1969) to Tanner on Tanner (2004). Like all of Altman's best work, it features an ensemble of stars, and here they are brought together to adapt nine short stories and one poem by Raymond Carver, creating a sprawling mosaic of people in Southern California struggling with the absurdities and minutia of life. Fueled by his fascination with people, as well as a Renoirian interest in humanity, it's an epic film, running three hours and change, about the small things.

At its essence, Short Cuts is about families; the story revolves around nine of them. The film's Greek chorus is Tess Trainer (Annie Ross), a drunken jazz singer whose daughter Zoe (Lori Singer) is a classical musician going through some emotional upheaval due to her stormy relationship with Tess. Their pool cleaner is Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) whose wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a sex-phone operator, and her job frustrates him, especially since it doesn't compare to their sex life. The Kaiser's best friends are Bill and Honey Bush (Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor), who are house-sitting for some neighbors, while Bill provokes Jerry's sexual frustrations. Honey's mother is waitress Doreen Piggot (Lilly Tomlin), and her husband Earl (Tom Waits) is a limo driver who falls off the wagon, leading to fighting, and Doreen falling off as well. While on the way home from work one day, Doreen hits the son of Howard and Ann Finnigan (Bruce Davidson and Andie MacDowell), but though Doreen tries to convince the kid Casey (Lane Cassidy) she should tell his parents, Casey runs home without getting any of her information. And though Casey gets home fine, he suffered a concussion, and by the time Ann finds him he's nearly comatose; unfortunately he takes a nap at Ann's behest. When he doesn't wake up she rushes him to the hospital, where Howard's father Paul (Jack Lemmon) shows up trying to make amends for the affair he had that dissolved his family, while baker Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett) makes threatening phone calls because the Finnigan's have yet to pick up their son's birthday cake. Casey's doctor is Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), and he's suffering from jealousy due to his wife, painter Marian (Julianne Moore), who had a friendship with another artist that he feared was sexual. At a concert the Wyman's meet Claire and Stuart Kane (Anne Archer and Fred Ward); Claire's a profession clown and Stuart's unemployed. The two couples plan to get together after Stuart goes fishing, but during his trip he runs across a dead body and decides to keep fishing anyway — which causes a rift between Stuart and Claire. On the way to a job, Claire is picked up on by philandering cop Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins), whose wife Sherri (Madeline Stowe) is Marian's sister. Gene's carrying on an affair with Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand), and this upsets Betty's ex-husband and helicopter pilot Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), who decides to get revenge on her by performing Solomon's solution to taking half of their assets.

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Altman has always been an actor's director, and his films live or die on the strength of the performers. In Short Cuts, almost everyone is game, though a few performers either have lousy material or just can't play in Altman's universe (Anne Archer, for one, comes across as weak). And like a lot of his films, he lets actors play dumb characters that one almost feels he is mocking, while some of the narratives are less compelling than others. Even at its extended running time, people get lost in the shuffle (Taylor and Downey Jr. seem the most compacted, as it sets up the original Carver story but doesn't explore it; that said, both are welcome presences). But this is also fitting, the size and weight and sloppiness works to the film's benefit; this is Altman at his purest, and this sense of unadulterated Altman is complemented by his trademark camera style, with its drifting focus and the use of overlapping dialogue. Altman has long had a kinship with jazz, and there's a sense that it wouldn't be right if there weren't some missteps along the way. And when the performers are good (which most are) you get the feeling that Altman captures something that only he can through these methods. The heart of the movie belongs to — oddly enough — Chris Penn, as he spends the entire picture under pressure until he explodes in a violent act, much like the city itself, which matches his violence with an earthquake. An exploration of the random occurrences — good and bad — that shape our daily lives, Short Cuts is easily summed up by Annie Ross's chorus of "That's Life." Rarely has such a clichéd sentiment felt so apropos.

The Criterion Collection presents Short Cuts in a two-disc set, with a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Disc One contains the feature and an isolated music-only track. On Disc Two is the feature-length documentary Luck, Trust and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver County (90 min.), which covers the making of the film, with interviews featuring most of the cast, crew, and Raymond Carver's widow Tess Gallagher. Missing from the original Criterion Laserdisc edition is the Pauline Kael commentary, which was featured along with the documentary. Film-centric supplements include "Reflections on Short Cuts" (29 min.), a conversation between Tim Robbins and Altman wherein Robbins proves himself a fairly good interviewer. Also included are two deleted scenes and a wisely abandoned alternate take. In the section "Marketing" is an introduction, poster designs, the theatrical teaser and trailer, along with six TV spots. Carver-centric extras include the BBC television programme "Moving Pictures" (18 min.) about one segment of the film that was adapted from Carver's story "Jerry and Molly and Sam." "To Write and Keep Kind" (57 min.) is a PBS documentary on the life of Carver, and there's an hour-long audio interview with Carver from 1983. On top of that, the book "Short Cuts" is included in the slipcase, a collection of the nine short stories and the poem that were used to create the screenplay. Dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcover.

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