Friday, October 21, 2005

Day 21: Short Cuts

Short Cuts is a fantastic film, a triumph of story matching form and vice versa. It follows the lives of many, many characters (too many to recount) living in southern California over the course of a few days. Some of them know each other, some don’t, many of their paths cross as the movie plays out, and some never meet each other. I’m not well-versed in Robert Altman’s work, but I’ve seen enough to know his style and to know that this movie’s subject matter is perfectly suited to it. As the characters go about their lives, the perspective of the film is like a wandering observer’s, focusing on whatever the hell it feels like. The movie glibly shows us a character we’ve already seen nonchalantly passing the character we’re currently focusing on, zooms in during peak emotional moments to details that seem irrelevant and resonant at the same time, and hears the cacophony of people talking at the same time, its attention dipping in and out from one conversation to the other like a loner at a party. It’s an overwhelming movie, both very dense and very long, giving it the feel of one of those novels made up of vignettes.

Like those novels made up of vignettes, the whole time I was watching Short Cuts, there was a growing awareness that these disparate stories must culminate into something (otherwise why make it other than as a stunt?). But, even as the movie built to its climax, I admired the way this movie tied its characters together with thematic links. Even more, I admired the way that the linking threads changed as situations in the movie changed. At a certain point, I thought to myself, “okay, so all these characters are connected by failed marriages” and then, later, “oh, no it’s a movie about bad fathering” and then, “oh, death unites them all.” All of these were probably right at the times I thought them, but on further reflection, I think it is life that unites all of these people. The movie captures the way life is full of accidents, happy ones as well as bad ones, but, with one well-timed exception, the movie never imposes upon its characters any plot contrivances to cause these accidents. Rather, the accidents that affect the characters are very often caused by the other characters in the film, people that are living in very divergent storylines. The end result is a very pleasing butterfly-effect ripple as one small action in one plot line culminates in a huge result in another.

And yet, the movie never feels too insular (which was a bit more of a problem in the similarly structured movie Magnolia). Because the movie is packed with characters and extras and the roving camera often highlights these seemingly unimportant details, there’s always a feeling that the characters live in a real living and breathing world with a multitude of untold stories surrounding the ones we’re watching. When the movie culminates with an earthquake, the only moment that unites all the characters, it doesn’t ring out as a false tie. Because so many random things have happened and the world feels so alive, it fits right into the mileau. The way the characters react to the earthquake evokes something about a change or a stasis in all of them and it felt appropriately climatic.

As the movie neared its ending point, I was relieved (the density and the length make this a demanding viewing experience) but I was also anxious. The writing and acting is so good in this movie (despite a few stumbles… oh Andie McDowell… when will you learn?) that I didn’t want to leave these people. I wanted to continue to see how their lives played out. And, really, the ending is like a slow fade on a song (which is not nearly as powerful as ending on a hard beat) eventually tapering to the credits. But, all quibbling aside, this is a wonderful movie about the way people interact with one another without even knowing it. That’s life, right?

The Cutting Edge

When I got home from work yesterday, I felt as if I'd hit the "movie a day wall". So, Short Cuts seemed like the best choice to make. I knew it'd be long, I knew it'd be dense. What better way to push on through the wall than a cinematic gorging feast? Anway, the full review will be up later tonight, but I'll say now that I think this is a fantastic film.

If you've seen Short Cuts, you know that this is a great ensemble piece. There was no one from ALF in it that I could see, which was disappointing. Still, I want to know who gives your favorite performance in this movie? For me, it's a toss up between Jack Lemmon and Fred Ward.