I want to compare Robert Altman's film Short Cuts with some of the stones by Raymond Carver on which the film is based.(1) My purpose is not to test the fidelity of the film to the stories: a film has its own kind of vision, and a director should be free to mold his material in whatever way he thinks fit. Some films of literary works may succeed by virtue of the way they reproduce some of the qualities of those works in another medium: one thinks, for instance, of the Merchant/Ivory films of novels by Henry James and E. M. Forster. But it is just as possible for a director simply to use the literary work as a starting point for his own creation. However, once that has been done, it seems reasonable to ask: how does the vision of the film compare with that of the literary work? Film has immense popular prestige, and it is likely that many more people will see the film than will read the stories. Should this be a matter for complacency or regret?
These questions are complicated in the case of Altman and Carver by the fact that Altman has gone to some lengths to emphasize the closeness of the connection between the film and the stories. Carver's name features prominently in the credits for the film; an edition of the nine stories and the poem has been published by Harvill under the title Short Cuts and with an introduction by Altman; and the screenplay of the film, by Altman and cowriter Frank Barhydt, has been published by Capra Press with an introduction by Carver's widow, the writer Tess Gallagher. Both the introductions, while noting the substantial changes Altman has made to Carver and the subtle weaving of his 10 quite separate pieces into a single whole, stress the inspiration of Carver's work and the indebtedness of the film to the stories. It seems fair then, after giving the film its due as an outstanding piece of filmmaking, to ask what has Altman added and what has he lost? What kind of insight do the two auteurs have into human behavior, what kind of view of life do they embody; and ultimately, what is the relative value for our culture and our ways of thinking of the two works and the two kinds of vision?
Altman's is a big film; long, multifarious, fast-moving; visually packed, loud with noises, voices, music. On the big screen, and with the enveloping stereophonic sound, it impacts on the senses. There is a lot of close-up and medium close-up: not only of faces but of bodies and objects (helicopters in the opening sequence, police motorcycle, cars, kitchen-equipment, all the dense materiality of the American big city, here the suburbs of Los Angeles). Noises, large and small, are registered with larger than life sonority. The rhythmic blood-beat of helicopter blades (you almost feel the wind), the deep-throated roar or growl of a motorcycle, the crunch of boots on gravel, a dog barking, the chink of motorcycle keys falling on a table. As in Altman's Nashville (1975), there is a sense of pressure, of turmoil, of many lives and energies pursuing their own paths and then intersecting, or colliding, bumping off each other. This sense of packed action, of material life, is one of the things that gives this film its impact and exhilaration.
The film begins with the helicopter behind the credit tides, which themselves slide onto the screen in vivid reds and blues like sideways floating planes, and then fade like radar images. It's almost an echo, as once reviewer pointed out, of the opening of Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola's film about Vietnam: and this feeling will persist and be reaffirmed at the end of Altman's film. The echo is also ironic: these choppers are not, ostensibly, hostile but merely spraying the thousands of LA gardens with Medfly insecticide. But the feeling of threat is still there; social, municipal power inflicted for the good of citizens whether they, individually, like it or not.
Structurally, the sequence serves to give a sense of a common context, to unite the multiple threads of the different lives, different situations, different plots, which are going to be loosely bound together in the film. …