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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Short Cuts (1993)



Reviews and Comments

"Daddy, why can't I have a monkey?"

Set in the bustle of Los Angeles, this star-studded Robert Altman cinematic tapestry tells the interlocking stories of a host of characters. Tapestry is precisely the right word. Each character is a thread in said tapestry, who contributes to the big picture, interacts with other characters who also contribute to the big picture, but really have no conception as to what the big picture looks like.

We do. We see everything that happens to each of the characters in the few days the film spans. This omniscience gives us, the audience, a unique perspective. We can see the series of accidents and chance that change the course of people's lives forever. The characters persevere, try hard to make their lives work. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Usually it's a mix of the two and often dictated by happenings completely out of their control. If each of the characters knew everything there was to know about all the others, how much more compassionate, less angry, might they all be, and how much simpler their lives? All the characters are linked to all the others in some direct or indirect way, but no one knows everybody. Roger Ebert surmised in his review how much things might change if they did. One character might never meet another character throughout the course of the film, but has plenty of precisely what the other needs. Maybe some of these perfect pairs will one day meet up -- several, undoubtedly, will not.

"Real life" films rarely interest me. This one fascinates me. I was not expecting to love it so -- I expected fine filmmaking, but not necessarily fine entertainment. Short Cuts does several things with smashing success: it is an upstanding example of cinematic art, it is engrossing entertainment, it is hilariously funny, it is poignant and moving, and it inspires an awe rarely evoked by every day life. Within the days that the film takes place, there are momental events that take place, which the characters will never forget as long as they live, and there are the routine events that occur and are forgotten. All of these are somehow made fascinating in some way. Frances McDormand's story, for instance, about her affair with a married man and a malicious ex, borders on hysteria. There are no punchlines -- it's pure situational humor, in the uncorrupted sense of the term -- and induced greater laughter in myself than most pure comedies can do. Andie MacDowell's story, on the other hand, evokes our utmost concern and compassion, more so than most pure dramas can. Short Cuts is surprising, shocking, and unpredictable in this fashion -- true to life, just when things seem settled and ordinary, something happens that snaps you to attention. And it's a different kind of thing each time. It might be a sudden moment of humor or horror, or a facet of a character abruptly revealed that shows us that they're all real people after all, not the stereotypes that a few of them seem like at first.

Rare indeed is a film that runs over three hours yet leaves us wanting more. Most of the stories have resolutions of some sort, enough to provide a necessary level of satisfaction a viewer expects from a film. But the end of the film isn't the end of the stories -- no more so than the beginning of the film was the beginning of the stories. In real life, episodes in people's lives never really end -- they shape the people they happen to, are often recalled in sporadic moments, and always affect their futures. The film's open-ended conclusion is appropriate and necessary, but it is admittedly disconcerting to see the credits roll so soon. It takes some thought and reflection afterward to bring the film to a close in our own minds. Viewers put off by the seemingly abrupt end may not be inclined to do so and will therefore not fully appreciate it. But the characters must get on with their lives, and we must get on with ours.

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