07 January 2007

Short Cuts: An Urban Symphony

This Christmas I bought Mat the DVD version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, adapted from a collection of short stories of the same name by Raymond Carver. I also had a chance to watch it for the second time and it confirmed my belief that it's one of my favourite films.

There are altogether 22 main characters in the film with mini-narratives interlacing and intersecting each other in a highly postmodern fashion. That's why it's called Short Cuts, I guess, because Altman prefers to tell their stories in short cuts. Yet the film can also be thought of as a short cut to the complexity of contemporary urban lifestyle, in which there is a denser population but in which people rarely know each other that well. Alienation and isolation can strongly be felt, but Altman tries to show a panoply of feelings attached to this urban condition, ranging from indifference, loneliness, and melancholy to jubilation and freedom.

The film showcases modern families, in which people have problems like jealousy, insecurity, and boredom. It's a small town in LA and these suburban people desperately encounter their urban angst, but their reactions vary. While Zoe Trainer, the celloist, chooses to take her own life, the Finnigans don't have any choice but soldiering on despite the death of their only son Casey. Jerry Kaiser brutally kills a girl, perhaps an act of violence derived from his repression as a powerless husband in a family where his wife earns (probably more than him) from sexual calls.

Patriarchy rules in this small town, with incidents of women being assaulted, raped, and killed. There's actually a scene where there is a dead woman body drowned in a river, presumably after being raped. Stuart Kane and his friends don't rescue her body from the river, but simply leaving it there tied to a bank. This indifference on the part of the male characters signals a nonchalant attitude towards ongoing female violence. Yet, there are also powerful female figures who try to negotiate their ways in this patriarchal maze. Marian Wyman and her sister, Sherri Shepard, fight back (despite a limited success) by treating their husbands as morons who are victims of jealousy (Marian's husband is jealous of her sleeping with somebody else, and Sherri's husband is jealous of another woman whom he is after). Yet, one gets the feeling that these two women need to work hard to keep their family together.

This myriad of lives and intricacies are framed by main incidents such as the spraying of the pesticide that covers the whole town and an earthquake. Both incidents point towards the fact that perhaps we humans are nothing but small creatures. When looked from a wider, higher perspective, our lives may not differ from those of ants or small bugs that are insignificant. Pettiness is the word, I guess. We are too locked up in this 'prison of life', to be able to look out from another vantage point. We are too entangled in this mess of petty feelings, i.e. jealousy, anger, lust, and insecurity.

Thus it's no wonder why the film starts and ends with the meeting of two families, the Wymans and the Kanes, who barely know each other in a concert, yet for some reason, they agree to have a party. The end of the film, i.e. the scene whereby the Kanes are at the Wymans, having small talks and dressed as clowns, signal our lives today (especially in a town or a big city) where people are just acquaintances but there is this desire to meet other people, to reach out. Yet, in doing so, we need to wear a mask, not unlike a clown, needing to pretend to be who we aren't. It's an urban malaise and I think Altman does a perfect job in portraying this.

1 comment:

Mat said...

I can't believe it! You gave away the ending AGAIN! Short Cuts is a masterpiece and you have written a fascinating analysis of it but simultaneously spoilt the film for anyone who's not yet had the pleasure of watching it.
Dechito's next entry: the bird in The Crying Game is a bloke.