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)

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