Thursday, July 27, 2006

Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman's cynical side gets to run amok in this extraordinary tapestry film set in Los Angeles. From the malathion-spraying helicopters that open the film to the natural event that closes it and everything in between, it's clear that Altman's view of L.A. is less than benign. Like a less insistent Crash, Altman draws links between the vast cast of characters, whether they've met or not. Generally, these links involve injury, cruelty or death; what keeps the film from descending to heavy-handedness (besides its pointed lack of any message-mongering) is Altman's profound gift for little touches. For a guy who's renowned for his misanthropy, he certainly gives his characters a lot of room to breathe, and even a character like Tim Robbins's asshole cop is allowed a measure of dimension by film's end. Amid a raft of fantastic ensemble performances, the high point of the film is Jack Lemmon's monologue, which starts as a self-serving lewd story and winds up as a regretful apology; the way the scene develops is indicative of the careful observational style Altman does so well. It's interesting to note, too, that the observational aspect manifests itself thematically -- among other things, this is a damning portrait of mass self-involvement, of seeing without acting. Avoidance of responsibility, intentional and otherwise, crops up a lot (the body in the river; the pedestrian accident), and Altman's signature overlapping dialogue is used here not just to give the sense of life outside of the plot but to point up that these people are all talking at and around one another, not to each other. A bracing and haunting experience; the three-hour length can be a bit wearying, but it's worth every minute. (Also fascinating is the remarkable frankness with which this film handles unclothed bodies. It's rare to see such matter-of-fact nudity in a Hollywood feature.)

Grade: A-


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