Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

Some Like It Hot (1959)

I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.

Most prominently, the performances by the lead actors are excellent. Although Marilyn Monroe has had a lot of the attention in her role as nightclub singer Sugar — and she’s very good at playing that particular type of calculating yet mock-ditzy blonde — the film is carried by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. These two play Chicago musicians, Joe and Jerry respectively, who have witnessed the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (a real event which took place in 1929) and are now on the run from the gangsters responsible. Desperate to get out of town, and with an opening in an all-woman revue band coming up, they impersonate women, taking the names Josephine and Daphne, and get on board the train to Miami with the band (one of whose members is the aforementioned Sugar).

There’s a lot that has been written about the film over the years, so I’ll just stick to a few points. One is that Jack Lemmon is consistently delightful as the more overtly comedic of the two central characters. He’s also the most interesting character, given the famous last lines of the film (wherein his rich, elderly suitor reveals he doesn’t care that ‘Daphne’ is biologically a man). Quite aside from the big comedic moments, Lemmon also does well at conveying this confusion at this incipient sexuality.

In fact, gender is treated quite interestingly, especially for a film from the 1950s. There doesn’t appear to be any great judgement about the crossdressing, as their female alter egos come easily to both Joe and Jerry. There’s a bit of lasciviousness in that first scene on the train with all the girls, but thereafter Josephine and Daphne settle down into being the protagonists’ regular identities — when Joe does return to being a man, he’s literally playing a role, camping it up with a Cary Grant impersonation. This also means that the comedic value of the crossdressing is not simply in laughing at men wearing women’s clothes, or at least it very quickly moves beyond that.

Naturally, there’s a lot more that can be said about Some Like It Hot, and I shall undoubtedly watch it again some day and catch more nuances. However, I wanted to just put down these meagre thoughts while I remembered; I shall try to do my (self-imposed) reviewing duty more justice with the next classic comedy I watch.

Some Like It Hot film posterCREDITS
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 31 July 2013.