FILM / Life, but not as they know it: Adam Mars-Jones on Short Cuts, Robert Altman's all-star adaptation and full-scale appropriation of short stories by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver never wrote a novel, but if he had it would have been very unlike the film Robert Altman has made of a handful of his short stories, Short Cuts (18). Carver would certainly have been flattered, but he might also have been horrified at what happens when his scrupulous grey scripts of narrative are woven together until they are big enough to carpet a ballroom (Short Cuts runs over three hours). By his juxtapositions, both on the level of the screenplay, written with Frank Barhydt, and of editing, Altman superimposes his own meanings to the point where Carver's intentions are pretty much irrelevant.

Altman's eccentric career follows from his eccentric temperament: here is a maverick with a strange streak of parasite, an anti- authoritarian with a powerful need of other people's structures to inhabit and contradict. Most of the successful films of his great period in the 1970s go against the grain of existing stories or genres. He seems to need a ready-made supply of sweet and sour flavours before he can substitute for them his own versions of sweetness and sourness. Mash went against the grain of both war movie and hospital movie, McCabe and Mrs Miller went against the grain of the western, and The Long Goodbye was a negative revision of the private- eye genre, though not quite a satire.

The shining exception to this pattern, of Altman being a sort of termite with genius, whose depredations yield new value, was Nashville, where the sheer scale and ambition of the idea (and of Joan Tewkesbury's script) freed him to create his own meanings from scratch. Choosing a number of easy targets - country music, bicentennial fever, electioneering - Nashville somehow forgot to satirise them, and became an epic poem in praise of dislocation and self-invention.

Altman's attempt at a follow-up, A Wedding, proved that he didn't know how to repeat the trick (few major film-makers have made so many terrible films, often in close proximity to masterpieces). Only now, 15 years later, has he made a return to polyphonic form, and although Short Cuts is a fine piece of work, it seems closed-off when compared to Nashville's openness, and it has a sourness and a sneaking sentimentality that can grate in different ways.

Nashville was structured around an election campaign, but we never saw the candidate. There is so little public culture left in the Los Angeles of Short Cuts (though LA was not where Carver set his stories) that it has virtually disappeared. One of the major characters is a policeman, but we only ever see him using his authority for his own manipulative ends. He might as well be an imposter for all the community service he puts in. Television is the only institution that links people in any way. Most personal encounters are bruising and humiliating: men are creeps and women are doormats. There is no contact between strangers. An eight-year-old boy who has just been struck by a car remembers his mother's warnings and refuses to talk to the driver responsible, when she tries to make sure he's all right.

If culture has broken down and left everyone isolated, nature persists, though only in negative ways. If people share nothing else, they share a vulnerable ecology. The city is suffering from infestation by a creature called the medfly. In the gorgeous opening sequence we see a formation of neon-coloured helicopters, themselves looking more like sinister parasites than anything else, spraying insecticide. The film ends with the glib but timely mini-apocalypse of a medium-sized earthquake.

In this artificial city, an insecticidal shower is the closest approach to the communal experience of rain. Bodies of water play an important but ambiguous part in the construction of the film. There's a river full of fish somewhere away from the city, but there's a murder victim's naked corpse in there too, and the urban fishermen who find her resist any claim this ex- person might be making on them. There are swimming pools, of course, and the girl we see in one of them, though naked, is alive and imagining what it is like to drown, while the pool cleaner spies on her, and her alcoholic mother flicks ice-cubes down at her from a balcony. There are fish in the city, too, glamorous fish in an aquarium, fish in fact so glamorous that they are given other fish to eat.

Altman's technical innovation, early in his career, was overlapping dialogue, but that only makes a brief appearance in Short Cuts, in one scene at a bakery. The overlapping we see in the film, particularly in a series of early sequences, is of a more sociopathic sort. Public space and private space are mutually sustaining fictions, and when one is eroded so is the other. We see a helicopter pilot making a phone call from a public booth, while filling a specimen bottle with urine. Audience members at a concert seem to forget they're not watching televison, and talk amongst themselves during the music. A devoted mother looks after her children without interrupting the phone-sex rap she is producing fluently: the timesheet on which she logs times and lengths of call is covered with half-eaten cookies. She can change a nappie while murmuring 'You're making my panties all wet,' without either laughing or crying at the juxtaposition. What is disturbing about a scene like this is not the overlap but the absence of overlap, a wilful separation of things that once belonged together.

The phone-sex mother looks forward to the coming of Virtual Reality (which she decribes as 'practically totally real, but not') in a crucial speech which makes the point that she already works there. Other characters inhabit the virtual reality of pathological lying or game-playing. They invent family illnesses ('It's a cruel disease') or family members or important secret business to cover up the sordidness of actual circumstance. Real family bonds can't compete with these inventions. When an actual father turns up at a hospital to be reunited with his son, he is as insubstantial and fleeting an apparition as a ghost.

A recurring image in the film is of a woman or a pair of women bursting out laughing, usually after a bullshitting male has just left. A pair of sisters seem to have the closest link of anyone, but even they don't tell the truth, it's just that they know when the other is lying. The film certainly sees women and children as more truthful than men, and in a series of scenes towards the end of the film, women and children insist on the connections that men deny. One woman attends a stranger's funeral to atone for her husband's neglect. Another goes to meet the baker who has been pestering her abusively about an uncollected cake to explain why it was never picked up. A group of children, by their continuing stubborn attachment to a missing dog, force their father to locate it. The phone- sex mother invents a new register of intimacy, in bed with her husband: 'I'm so glad Jo Jo got your eyes,' she says, insisting on the reality of genetic inheritence rather than the fantasy of desire.

Altman swings these stories back towards bleakness, but the problematic issue isn't really sweetness or sourness of tone. It's true that in Carver's original story, for instance, the missing dog refuses to return home, but there is nevertheless sentimentality latent in his work (American taste likes its unsentimentality on the sentimental side). The issue is point of view. When you read a Carver story, by and large you know less than the characters do (never mind that your position of underprivilege is highly artificial). Watching Short Cuts, you know much more than the characters. Their lives may be restricted, but your panoramic view of them is rather intoxicating, and your eye (or ear, thanks to the songs on the soundtrack) is always being drawn to the connections they have missed. In this sense Short Cuts is a conscious homage that is an unconscious travesty, and connects back to the compulsive revisionism of Altman's earlier adaptations of genre or story.

In one scene, for instance, two people collecting their developed films from a Foto Buster booth drop their little packets and pick up the wrong ones. It only takes a moment for them to realise their mistake, but by then each has been shocked by the images from the other's life. They back off in mutual alarm, and note down each other's licence-plate numbers. Only the viewer knows that the images are not what they seem - that the woman's boyfriend is a horror make-up artist, that the corpse in the river was not put there by the man who photographed her. It's the opposite of a Carver moment, and it's also very unlike the Altman who made Nashville. Any film that flatters its audience in this way, serving up fractured lives on a platter of omniscience, is in permanent danger of patronising it also.

See facing page for details

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back