Thursday, October 03, 2013

Taking Short Cuts to the Truth

"Short Cuts," which premiered 20 years ago today, is one of my favorite movies of the 1990s, in large part because it combines the work of two people (writer Raymond Carver and filmmaker Robert Altman) I admire — not to mention the talents of an all–star cast.

Several of Carver's short stories were woven together in a narrative about roughly two dozen southern Californians whose lives intersect in often random ways before, during and after an earthquake.

As I say, the links between the stories are often random — and maintaining them is tenuous at best — but they are plausible enough to give some credibility to some already credible (if selfish) human foibles.

In one subplot, Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison play the parents of a young boy who is about to have a birthday. His mother orders a special cake that requires a lot of extra work on the part of the baker (Lyle Lovett).

But the cake isn't picked up, and the baker, seething with rage, begins making harassing phone calls to the home. He doesn't realize that the reason the cake wasn't picked up is that the young boy for whom it was intended was hit by a car and lapsed into a coma.

He also doesn't know that Lily Tomlin, distracted by her problems with husband Tom Waits, was the one who struck the boy. She offered to take him for treatment, but, having been instructed by his mother not to take rides from strangers, he declined, insisting that he wasn't hurt, and walked home, unaware of how seriously injured he really was.

The boy eventually dies, and the drama in the hospital set the stage for grandfather Jack Lemmon's monologue on fidelity, which just might have been the greatest dramatic performance in a career that included "Days of Wine and Roses."

In another subplot, three friends (Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis) go on a fishing trip and discover the body of a woman in the creek. They decide not to report their finding until the weekend is over — so as not to disrupt their plans.

In yet another, a new mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) earns money by performing phone sex. Her husband, Chris Penn, doesn't like it, but he knows they can use the money.

Sex, of course, is a recurring theme. Amateur painter Julianne Moore and and her husband, played by Matthew Modine, prior to the arrival of some dinner guests, discuss for the first time her infidelity with another guest at a party a few years earlier.

The audience can only imagine, from what the two say to each other, what happened. Moore and the other guest were chosen to go get more liquor for the party but found that it was too late at night and most of the stores were closed. Modine's suspicions were aroused when the two were gone so long. Turned out the guest had propositioned Moore and, in an inebriated state, she accepted.

Apparently a simmering yet previously unexpressed issue for Modine, Moore is startled when he brings it up and spills her drink on her skirt. She takes off the skirt and tries to remove the stain, exposing the fact that she is wearing no underwear.

The husband observes it and, introducing yet another previously unexpressed (and unresolved) issue into the conversation, accuses her of trying to be like the subjects in her paintings, who always seem to be naked.

She ultimately confesses to him, but she attempts to excuse her infidelity by pointing out that she was intoxicated — and the man did not ejaculate.

These were short stories originally, not one long novel, but I often wondered if Carver regarded them as parts of a whole. He died about five years before "Short Cuts" was released, and I don't know if he ever had a hand in the planning of the movie — or if that really began after he died.

It's just one of those things I wonder about, and there is no — excuse the pun — short cut to the answer.