Friday, June 10, 2005

Robert Altman's Short Cuts

A few years ago I saw the movie Magnolia and instantly loved it, repeat viewings only confirmed its genius, and it's found a place in my top 5 films of all time. In reading about the film, I frequently saw it called Altmanesque, particularly in reference to two of Robert Altman's films, Nashville and Short Cuts. So naturally, I was compelled to check out these films and see where Magnolia came from.

Last summer I saw Nashville, a 1975 film about a whole bunch of people who are in the title city for a country msuic event. Over the course of the film, we see a whole bunch of different stories, that are loosely connected, sometimes by shared characters and other times by just the appearance of one character in the background of another person's scene. So, it's a whole bunch of loosely connected events, which is similar to Magnolia.

After seeing this film, I sought out Short Cuts, which only came out on DVD recently, and saw that last night. Short Cuts was the culmination of Altman's resurgence iin the early 90s, a resurgence that began with The Player, a film I also watched this week. The Player was quite frankly a pretty bad movie. I think the novelty of an inside Hollywood comedy is gone following Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm and countless other HBO series. And without that novelty, there just isn't much there. The score, despite being by Thomas Newman who wrote some great stuff for American Beauty, makes full use of dated synthesizer sounds, and the plot isn't particularly engaging. The only thing that still holds up is the film within a film, in which Bruce Willis rescues Julia Roberts from a gas chamber, followed by this dialogue.

Julia: What took you so long?
Bruce: Traffic was a bitch.

And then the credits, classic awful action movie line. But one good laugh does not a film make, and this film does not hold up.

However, Short Cuts does hold up, and doesn't seem particularly dated. Like Nashville and Magnolia, it chronicles a whole bunch of lives that occasionally overlap, but generally it's just people moving through the city, doing their own thing. There's a lot of characters, about twenty, and the film is 187 minutes, so you've got to be ready for a long sit.

The film has a great cast, to name just a few: Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr. Most of them play fairly engaging characters, and it's a fun movie to watch for the level of acting alone.

I should preface what I'm about to say by saying that I really enjoyed the movie, I can respect the craft that went into it and would reccomend it to people. However, looking at this movie after seeing Magnolia, I can't help but see its flaws. PT Anderson drew a lot from Short Cuts, but he did so much more with the style than Altman did.

Altman sticks fairly strictly to the definitions of art cinema, the idea that you've got to avoid artificial conflict and strive for realism in the film, avoiding the excess emotion of classical Hollywood cinema. This technique was necessary in the 1950s when the New Wave came about because classical Hollywood cinema completely lacks any sort of emotion realism. However, in responding to those perceived excesses, many art films went to far in the opposite direction, to create films that just drift along, without any sort of emotional beats for the audience. That's my problem with Altman's work, he seems so committed to avoiding narrative artifice and over the top emotion that the film becomes sterile, you just watch the film as an observer, never becoming fully engaged in the characters' emotional existence.

This is quite different from Magnolia, which isn't particularly narrative driven, but still manages to engage you with the characters emotionally. That's largely because of the filmmaking. Altman's camera very rarely draws attention to itself, you're kept at a distance, strictly an observer. The only really emotional moments are those in which Annie Ross' singing is juxtaposed with other events. Those scenes are the highlight of the film, but even those can't reach the level of the "Wise Up" sequence in Magnolia, which is emotionally devestating.

PT Anderson fits in with a new group of art cinema people, who reembrace strong emotional involvement with the characters. Other people doing this are Gaspar Noe and Wong Kar-Wai, both of whom use all the film techniques at their disposal to make you feel. Altman, at least in what I've seen by him, has never created anything that touches the emotional intensity of those directors' films. I guess it's not his goal, but it makes it difficult to love his films. Sometimes it's good to embrace narrative mechanics if it allows the audience to get drawn into the film. Short Cuts leaves you at an almost awkward distance watching the emotional scenes, like you're spying on these people and shouldn't be there, whereas Magnolia makes you feel exactly what the characters are feeling.

Now, admittedly it's unfair to compare this film to one of my favorite films. Up against most films it's a masterpiece, but I demand more from my films than to just be above average. Obviously, Altman's films were essential to the creation of PT Anderson's stuff, so for that reason alone, he deserves respect, and the films themsevles are top notch too. It's just that he touches greatness and doesn't quite make it there, that's what's so frustrating. In his effort to avoid Hollywood cliches, he goes so far in the other direction that his films become a bit too sterile.


Keith G said...

Well, your comparison of "Short Cuts" to "Magnolia" is reasonable - there's a more overt *style* to Paul Thomas Anderson's work, Altman's is more classic. I also think Anderson has more affection for his characters than Altman does, but that's a general comment on the directors' work.

Your assessment of "The Player" is just wrong, wrong, wrong, I'm afraid. Not sure how I would begin to change your mind, though. Yes, the music is a little dated, but that's about it. Perhaps in the context of a post-Curb Your Enthusiasm world it doesn't have the same bite, but I still think it's dark and interesting enough the way it manipulates the audience.

Patrick said...

Particularly in the case of Magnolia, the characters and themes are very personal for Anderson, and Altman doesn't seem to make films that are as personal. He's a great director, but you can feel the lack of personal connection in his work. But, after so many films, it's probably difficult to capture the fire that Anderson has so early in his career.

So, it's the same thing with The Player, I just caught Altman too late. His work seems like the derivative when it was actually the original.

buy viagra without prescription said...

Magnolia is one of the best movies in this category but I've been seeing better movies of the same year, it was released in an important context but I don't care about it, all is about good movies and productions. 2j3j

buy generic viagra said...

I remember some old movies actually i still have them in somewhere my basement, and they are quiet nicely than the new ones, but I believe that this guy really knew how to made movies.

Anonymous said...

This is idiotic. Anderson better than Altman? Are you out of your mind? Anderson is so derivative it's almost plagiarism. The problem is your steeped in a kind of narrative tradition that you have no capacity of escaping.