“I’m getting us out of here, baby. I’m getting us out of Downey.” That’s what Earl, Tom Waits’s alcoholic limousine driver in Short Cuts, says to his wife Doreen (Lily Tomlin), who has obviously heard this and whole lot else before. Earl is of course teasing, mostly, but his desire to escape their Southern California trailer park is the kind of honest blue-collar ambition a character might express in one of Waits’s own songs. It’s also the kind of fat-chance wish someone might make in the stories of Raymond Carver, which are the basis for Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s 1993 epic about marital discontent in Los Angeles, which plays tonight at the Walter Reade Theater.
Carver-ites have argued, understandably, that Altman distorts his source. But really all he does is transplant Carver Country from the damp Pacific Northwest to the medfly-infested, earthquake-jostled Southland, a place where everyone looks–as the title tell us–for the easy way out. There are too many outstanding performances by too many fine actors to single any out (though Waits and Tomlin have always been among my favorites, along with daughter Lily Taylor and her budding make-up artist husband, played by a weirder-than-usual Robert Downey Jr.).
The greatest achievement of Short Cuts is its raw portrayal of smoggy Los Angeles. The town’s lower middle-class houses and apartments are cramped, disheveled and toy strewn, much the way most homes that aren’t in the movies and that don’t employ help tend to look. And it’s a big drag for one character, who is out of work, that his car won’t start, because that means getting a lift from his wife in her ignoble Pinto. Altman’s technique in this movie, as one critic explained, is to use images that “have the weight and resonance of symbol or metaphor but [which] actually fit into the film as just another element of mundane life.”
Altman’s intertwining narrative structure, similar to the format of the earlier Nashville, has loomed over many a Los Angeles picture since. Movies that, unlike Short Cuts, actually won awards, such as the execrable Crash, are unimaginable without it. And so, dated Bush I-era fashions aside, in the fifteen years since its release, Short Cuts has only grown in resonance. It is now an American classic, a movie so terribly spot-on about the lies and petty betrayals that comprise our domestic lives, that it seems to have always already been with us.–Benjamin Strong