Carver Soup Director Robert Altman Blends 22 Characters from the Stories of Raymond Carver into a Pot That Bubbles

By Harper Barnes Post-Dispatch Critic | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Carver Soup Director Robert Altman Blends 22 Characters from the Stories of Raymond Carver into a Pot That Bubbles


Harper Barnes Post-Dispatch Critic, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


`SHORT Cuts" was chosen to open the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1, adding to the glitter that Robert Altman's new film had acquired by sharing the top prize at the Venice Film Festival a month before.

By now, there has been so much positive publicity about Altman and "Short Cuts" that the inevitable backlash has already set in. Several publications have recently attacked the movie and the 68-year-old director. The most recent slam came from Robert Coles in last Sunday's New York Times, which had previously run a glowing review by Vincent Canby.

Coles accused the movie of having a "mean and bitter attitude toward women" and described the intricately staged, three-hour dance as having an "almost frenzied pace" and being "relentless in its cynical, sardonic assault on anyone and everyone."

The attack from the respected scholar-activist came as a surprise to those of us who found the women characters in "Short Cuts" to be much stronger and more moral than the men, the pace to be measured and the tone, while clearly sardonic, to be generally affectionate toward the characters. But there is nothing surprising about someone taking the work of this very personal director very personally.

"There will be slings and arrows," Altman remarked in an interview after the movie was screened at the Film Festival. "We'll survive them, as long as they are not too many."

For Altman, arguably America's greatest living movie director, surviving slings and arrows has been part of the price of artistic integrity for many years. At times, the wounds have been so severe he has been left for dead, at least by the big-time movie business.

Three years ago, Robert Altman was living and working in Europe, not entirely by choice. It had been several years since he had made a feature film in America, and a decade and a half since his 1975 tour-de-force "Nashville" had culminated a remarkable five-year period that included such brillant, quirky Altman films as "M*A*S*H," "Brewster McCloud," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye" and "California Split."

Most critics and movie buffs loved Altman's work, and wanted more. But the Hollywood movie establishment did not get along very well with the sometimes crusty, fiercely independent Altman, who had served his initial apprenticeship in his hometown of Kansas City, making industrial films, and then had worked for a decade on television shows like "Bonanza" and "Combat."

Altman was in his mid-40s by the time he made "M*A*S*H," his first major movie, and was never part of any influential Hollywood clique. His major disciple, Alan Rudolph, is regarded as even less commercially viable than Altman .

By the early 1980s, the men who ran American movie studios had decided Altman was washed up, an overly demanding, overly arty director whose successes made very little money, and whose failures were financial disasters.

Definitely in that latter category was his surrealistic "Popeye," starring a many-voiced young comedian named Robin Williams. It was a major box-office flop in 1980 and seemed to end Altman's career as a director of major feature films.

Ten years later, after a decade of small independent film and television projects, Altman was in exile in France, where he had just finished making "Vincent and Theo."

"Vincent and Theo" may well be the best movie ever made about an artist, but it is very long, and unflinching in its presentation of Vincent van Gogh's bouts of depression and distinct lack of social graces. It is definitely not a candidate for that Hollywood staple, "the feel-good movie."

In February of 1990, somewhat depressed by his prospects, Altman flew from Paris to Los Angeles on business. It was an 11-hour direct flight, and he took with him a bag of books gathered by a friend.

"I like short stories," he recalled, "and three or four of the books were collections of stories by Raymond Carver. …

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