CINEMA / To cut a short story long

Click to follow
AT A TIME when most movies have trouble stumbling through one narrative, it's a pleasure to watch a film which, with unruffled brilliance, juggles 11. Robert Altman's Short Cuts (18) takes the characters from nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver, whisks them away from Carver's Pacific Northwest to the environs of Los Angeles, and introduces them to each other, throwing in a jazz singer and classical cellist (Altman creations) to provide the soundtrack. The characters flit in and out, rather like the opening credits, which flutter to

the buzz of a night-time convoy

of crop-spraying helicopters. With red wing-lights, gaudily glowing

yellow tanks and misty, milky spray, the helicopters look like an alien fleet staking out the embattled

territory beneath.

Back on earth, the characters are reacting - and over-reacting - to them. A television reporter (Bruce Davison) pontificates on 'the war on the medfly'. At home he watches his spiel with his

wife (Andie MacDowell). Elsewhere, a neurotic housewife (Madeleine Stowe) wails to her cop husband (Tim Robbins) that their dog may catch cancer if he has to stay outside. (Robbins wants to be rid of the mutt, who he fears has sniffed out his philandering.) A limousine driver (Tom Waits) watches the reporter on a portable television set. When he reaches the cafe where his waitress wife (Lily Tomlin) works, the camera follows behind and then climbs above him to peer through the screen door: a voyeuristic opening to a film that peeps at people's lives.

Altman interweaves the threads of these lives - and nearly 20

others - until they tangle up. Taking his lead from Carver's poem 'Lemonade', he explores the seductive futility of trying to unravel the skein of events that make up our fate. In the Carver poem, a man whose grandson drowned after he'd gone to get some lemonade, tries to rewind to the accident's first cause: 'If there hadn't been any lemons on earth, and there hadn't been any Safeway store, well, Jim would still have his son, right?' Altman's characters are lost in similar mazes of self-reflection: Jack Lemmon, as Davison's father, raking through his memories to the moment he lost his boy's love; Annie Ross (as the jazz songstress) recalling a broken marriage. When doctor Matthew Modine presses his artist wife (Juli-

anne Moore) into speaking of an infidelity, she recalls it so sharply that she reminds us that, even in the tangle, there are threads we hold on to like lifelines.

By rubbing life's disasters up against its irritations, Altman shows how our perspectives constantly shift, the scale of our concerns

enlarging and diminishing, causing tragic collisions. In the film's

central narrative - and the one that is most faithful to Carver - Davison and MacDowell's son is knocked over by a car the day before his birthday and left unconscious in hospital. Snatching a moment's rest at home, Davison testily brushes off the baker (Lyle Lovett) of the boy's cake, who rings to ask why it hasn't been collected. Lovett retaliates with a series of anonymous phone-calls and we have the wrenching spectacle of one man's minor pique crashing into another's broken world.

Here Altman's vision matches Carver's. In his earlier multicharacter piece, Nashville (1975), which thronged with people at a country music festival, Altman included a motorway pile-up which seemed to be his image of America, and of life in general. But there's an evasiveness in Altman's fragmentation: often, where Carver dug deep, Altman scratches the surface. Carver's moments of tragic resonance get swallowed up in the parade. Anne Archer plays a woman who falls out of love with her husband (Fred Ward) after he tells her he found a woman's corpse while fishing but left it there

until the three-day trip was over. Carver's story ended on the wife shrugging, 'She was only a child' - a kind of desolate acceptance. This sense of her walking, wounded, on, is lost in the film, as the couple slide into another narrative - a party scene. Carver's steady, gentle gaze is replaced by an unfeeling gadfly.

Altman also glamorises Carver's world, importing an air of

sophisticated sex comedy and bumping his characters up a class. Gone with the spare Carver prose is the austerity of his people's lives, the hard drive of poverty replaced by relative affluence. Walt Lloyd's superb photography is some compensation, with its desaturated

colours seeming to drain Los Angeles of its energy. But only the trailerpark couple, Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits, have stepped out of Carver's pages, and even Tomlin has none of the grotesquerie of Carver's character, whose 'veins that spread in a berserk display' shamed her husband. Elsewhere, it is a world where the least glamorous of the toiling housewives is Jennifer Jason Leigh. If this, as some have claimed, is a portrait of America's apocalyptic ills, things could be a lot worse.

As in Nashville, Altman, lacking Carver's feel for anti-climax, belies his radical instincts by pushing his stories towards phoney, melodramatic resolutions. Still, the journeys to them are exhilarating. In over three hours, the story-telling rarely flags. Altman maintains the viewer's interest with his camera, which, save for two long speeches, never stops moving, constantly creating tension and anticipation. There's an unerring rhythmic logic to his editing, so that even with so many stories, spread over five days, we

always have a sense of place and time. When Moore confesses her infidelity to Modine, the scene is shot in early evening and, as she speaks, the light darkens along with the relationship.

The action busks to the beat

of Annie Ross's jazz songs, to the classical cello of Lori Singer, who plays her daughter, and to Mark Isham's score - with some Altmanesque overlapping. At times the music is intrusive, as in Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which early on was like a Leonard Cohen video, and the blues wistfulness mutes some of the powerful emotions. Though you feel the film should have a less starry feel, the stars'

performances cannot be faulted. Tim Robbins, in particular, seems to have become the quintessential Altman actor, full of sportive malevolence, never the gentleman, always The Player. That's not necessarily very Carveresque, but we should take, and enjoy, Altman on his own terms. He has thrown a great party, even if he hasn't

made a great film. Feast on his Short Cuts. Just don't call it an American masterpiece.

I thought that the audience had gone down with the flu near the

end of Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (U) - before realising to my wide, dry-eyed amazement that the snifflers were in

fact weeping. With its contempt

for complexity of feeling and a mawkishness masquerading as honesty, Shadowlands is a tear machine. The screenplay presses the familiar buttons - declarations of love, mortal illness, lonely remorse - and audiences (who, as the old adage goes, are always collectively generous) provide the correct lachrymose response.

It's a shame because this autumnal affair, between Oxford professor and Narnia author C S Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and American Jewish, Christian-convert Communist Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), was shaping up as a sparkling romantic comedy. Winger is marvellously feisty and witty, nervous yet forthright in front of Lewis's fossilised colleagues: there's a sense of New World warmth seeping into the old. Hopkins doesn't seem quite reflective or intelligent enough, but charisma carries him through, and a sense of long-buried hurt. Then it all falls apart: character and plot development go hang, replaced by soupy apophthegms ('The pain now is part of the happiness then'). You half expect an Oxonian twist on the Love Story mantra: love means never having to read Anglo-Saxon. By the end the only pleasure left is in the fine child actor Joseph (Jurassic Park) Mazzello outshining the adults with his switch from imp to waif.

The Ballad of Little Jo (15) is Maggie Greenwald's intelligent, slightly dour account of little Jo Monaghan (nee Josephine), who poses as a man after becoming an outcast because of an affair which led to pregnancy, and spends her life shepherding in the frontier wilderness. Suzy Amis, with her willowy frame and sandy hair, convinces you she might actually have been taken for a tremulous young man. When she is unmasked by a Chinese coolie and has an affair with him, it's a poignant meeting of outsiders. If at times the film seems crudely biased against the cowboys - shaggy-haired bigots to a man - it can hardly be said that they haven't had a decent crack of the whip in Western history.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.