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).

Criterion Sunday 258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

A fictionalised account of a Democratic nominee for President contesting the primaries against the likes of Michael Dukakis (who would go on to actually win the Democratic nomination that year, if not the Presidency), Jesse Jackson and even Al Gore and Joe Biden (who are never seen, but their names come up once or twice). Michael Murphy (as Jack Tanner) has a sort of bland appeal that feels so familiar in US Presidential candidates, so he’s a good choice for this man who becomes very slightly radicalised during his campaign — we’re not talking Bulworth (1998) here, but there’s a striking sequence in Detroit where he talks to (presumably very real) local campaigners in what feels the closest to a documentary sequence in the whole mini-series (not a million miles from some of the political discussions in, say, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom in making dramatic the everyday political discussions of ordinary people). Elsewhere there’s behind-the-scenes political plotting, including Tanner’s affair with the deputy manager of a rival’s campaign, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon)’s college idealism clashing with her more conservative father, whose policies for the most part are in unemotional soundbites, and his hard-nosed campaign manager TJ (Pamela Reed) making calls and crunching numbers in fairly opaque ways, but they certainly come across dramatically. The general sense is to satirise the idea of politicians having any actual beliefs, an early broadside against the kind of media and image-heavy campaigning that has come to dominate the US election cycle. Altman’s familiar style, with a roving camera, plenty of zooms and overlapping dialogue is all in place and it feels a bit like a prelude to some of the multiple narratives he’d pursue in The Player and Short Cuts.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Each of the 11 episodes is prefaced by a minute or two of an in-character introduction filmed in 2004 (generally Murphy, but Reed and Nixon also show up), reflecting on the events of the previous episode. This was filmed at the time that Trudeau and Altman worked with many of the same actors on a follow-up mini-series Tanner on Tanner. That latter sequel isn’t on this set, but perhaps a future upgrade may include it?
  • There’s a 20 minute conversation between Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman from 2004, in which they discuss how the series came together and the way they shot the thing, as well as useful comments on the improvisations and working methods of some of the actors and political figures they got as cameos.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Creator/Writer Garry Trudeau; Cinematographer Jean Lépine; Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Crewson; Length 353 minutes (in 11 episodes of c30 minutes each, although the first is a double episode).

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 257: Secret Honor (1984)

One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 230: 3 Women (1977)

While I like a lot of what Ingmar Bergman has created (and feel equally frustrated by a lot of what’s within his work), I do not like his influence in cinema, which seemed particularly prevalent amongst American filmmakers in the 1970s. Bergman, it seems to me, was every bit as patchy as Robert Altman has been in his career, and this film — an avowedly dream-based rendering of relationships amongst three women (well, primarily two really: Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall) seemingly inspired by some kind of Bergmanesque mood of Scandinavian disaffection, as well as psychoanalytic ideas — feels like a copy. A lot of people seem to love it, but I can’t find much to love really, but they seem to be tapping into an emotional range that I think would take me more processing to grasp. The performances are great, but the core relationships seem indebted to over-familiar mother/whore dichotomies, and the alienating score is (perhaps appropriately, of course) suffocating.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Altman; Cinematographer Chuck Roscher; Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 November 2018.