Pitting the written word against the moving image in a battle to determine the best fiction.
Editor-in-Chief, Bandit Fiction
Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts (1993) posthumously collects short stories from throughout his career, drawing from Will You Be Quiet, Please?, Where I’m Calling From, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral and the poetry collection A New Path to the Waterfall. The book features nine stories and one poem that dip into the everyday lives of middle and working class America throughout the ’70s and ’80s, most often centring on married life. Amongst these are ‘A Small, Good Thing’, which tells of an eight-year-old boy who is run down by a car on his birthday, and which sets his parents’ grief in conflict with the gruff and overbearing baker of the boy’s birthday cake; and ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’, which documents the fallout when a long-brewing infidelity finally surfaces in a young couple’s marriage.
Released alongside the Carver collection in 1993 (and the very reason for its existence), Robert Altman’s comedy-drama features an ensemble cast that includes actors Robert Downey Jr, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Chris Penn and a number of musicians, from as far across the generic spectrum as Huey Lewis and Lyle Lovett. Set in California around 1989 – as evidenced by the medfly aerial spraying that occurs during the film’s opening – Short Cuts creates a web of loosely connected domestic narratives spanning the greater Los Angeles area: a harassed waitress runs down a boy in her car; a phone sex worker balances the needs of her family with the faux-eroticism of her work; a helicopter pilot seeks revenge on his ex; and a rogue cop abandons the family dog. All life finds a home in this feature, and all the subtleties and grand gestures of their plights ensure none will ever be the same again.
What’s the difference?
- All narratives are independent from each other in the source material, but intersect on screen, often bending, distorting or altogether changing characters’ occupations and situations
- Names also change from the source material; for example, Betty becomes Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) and Jill becomes Betty (Frances McDormand)
- Two additional characters, mother and daughter Tess and Zoe Trainer (Annie Ross and Lori Singer), are introduced in the film, invented by Altman to provide additional connective strands
- Vitamins is the only story in the Carver collection not explicitly represented onscreen, though its spirit lives on in other stories, such as the confrontation in the jazz club
- The setting of the film is shifted from the book’s Pacific Northwest to Southern California
- The hit and run that is central to ‘A Small, Good Thing’ is changed to something considerably less cold and shocking in the film, as waitress Doreen (Lily Tomlin) attempts to help the boy and take him home
- ‘A Small, Good Thing’ also features a grandfather character (Jack Lemmon) in the film, who is partially drawn from the poem ‘Lemonade’ (though Altman uses this more as a thematic guide rather than the focus of any single narrative)
Published as a tie-in to the film of the same name, Short Cuts is in essence a Raymond Carver greatest hits collection, compiled by Robert Altman himself, five years after the author’s death. Because of this, the book and the film share an unusual, immutable symbiosis. But whether Carver himself would have approved of the whole business of it is difficult to say. On the one hand, the pairing of the collection with the film may be seen as a cynical move by the publisher to cash in on a big-screen Carver adaptation that even Carver diehards may otherwise have had some difficulty recognising. On the other, it is a rare twinning of an auteur and a great literary talent that, in many ways, can’t help but shine a positive light on both.
In any case, most of the stories in Short Cuts are what many would consider to be platinum-standard Carver, including ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ and ‘A Small, Good Thing’. Shining bright lights into the front rooms of Northwestern USA, the collection spends a lot of time unpacking the intricacies, emotions, ongoing battles and isolation of traditional married life, taking potshots at the American Dream while nonetheless reaffirming many of its core values.
‘So Much Water’ is one of Carver’s darker stories, with a plot more explicitly shaped by action than the bulk of the rest of his work. It centres around the breakdown of a marriage after Stuart, the husband, finds the dead body of a young woman floating in the river and decides to complete his days-long fishing trip before reporting it. Claire, his wife, is shocked to the core by his inaction and the news that follows, detailing the sexual assault and murder of this young woman who went missing several days previously. In classic Carver style, it is the implications that keep the story churning in our guts, isolating the couple and bringing violence, fear and deep mistrust into their home without the need for any egregious action on the page. This is a significant piece for contemporary readers, feeling prescient for 2021 UK in particular thanks to its reflective and reactive female perspective that fully embodies the fear of what ordinary men are capable of.
‘A Small, Good Thing’ is the story even those unfamiliar with Carver are likely to know, as ubiquitous as it is across the world’s high school classrooms, university reading lists and ‘best short story’ anthologies. Indeed, it is so popular that there is little to say that has not been said a thousand times already. The storytelling nuance throughout builds to an emotional climax and potential for resolution with Ann and Howard (Scotty, the injured boy’s parents), and this version, which Carver created as an expansion of his original shorter story ‘The Bath’ should be considered the definitive edition.
Carver’s brief, sharp and often dialogue-driven minimalist form built on Hemingway’s foundations and transitioned short story writing into the art form that we know today. In recognition of the author’s importance, Short Cuts is a welcome addition to the canon, providing a snapshot of what made him tick, and offering both first time and veteran Carver readers all the colours of his palette in a slender, bite sized and emotionally charged volume.
Already a well-established voice in Hollywood by the 1990s, Robert Altman used Short Cuts to take another run at the intricacies and extravagances of Los Angeles life, following hot on the heels of his legendary Tinseltown satire The Player (1992). But, where The Player chewed up its subject and spat it out on the executives’ doorsteps, Short Cuts lacks the focus necessary to make much of a statement at all.
Rather than adapt a Raymond Carver, Altman decided to adapt all the Raymond Carver. In theory the prosaist’s minimalist style lends itself as well to the affairs of the silver screen as it does the page, but this is rarely true in practice. Adapting such a significant literary figure is a challenge, as the writing itself is always the first thing to go and, certainly, Altman’s Short Cuts dispenses with a lot of the original lines outright and either guts or muddles many of the stories.
To summarise the film is to attempt to summarise life itself, but it includes: Fred Ward and Anne Archer as a down-on-his-luck salesman and a party clown; Lyle Lovett as an alcoholic baker; Frances McDormand as a single mother with a laundry list of male companions; Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits) and Lily Tomlin as a limo driver and waitress whose lives are dominated by working, drinking and casual misery; and Tim Robbins as a lecherous cop, whose anger, infidelity and amoral approach to life and work show that the perception of America’s boys in blue hasn’t changed all that much over the past three decades.
Altman plays fast and loose with plots, structure and characters, introducing a lot of the implied backstory from the source stories and inventing as much material as necessary to fill the frankly unjustifiable 188 minute runtime. Unfortunately, in taking such liberties, he provides far too much plot and explicit causality, running contrary to the spacious and interpretive feel that makes Carver’s writing so poignant. Carver’s characters often exist in the lower-middle-class milieu, only a few drunken nights and quiet fights away from the breadline, but Altman can’t help but turn them pure Hollywood, their occupations too passive to really mean anything, their emotions too shallow to strike a chord.
Short Cuts is a film that simply doesn’t treat either its subject matter or subjects with enough reverence, framing nearly everything in acquiescent medium shots that rob the dialogue of its emotional power. The action and dialogue are lax in their delivery, dedicated only to the fast-moving scene, whilst ironically not really going anywhere. This extends to the editing and pacing of the film also, which is quite literally composed of a series of short cuts, rarely remaining in a single scene, with a single set of characters, for longer than a minute or two.
Most of the performances are strong – Waits in particular is impressive – but few of them embody the fundamental dimensions of their literary counterparts. Lovett’s baker, for example, is just a young Californian man, lacking the grit and grease that made the original so memorable. Equally, the parents of the birthday boy from the same story strand, played by Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison, are too intangible, too remote, and lack the depth of emotion and loss of control necessary to really make us feel. Even the line on which this segment turns (the title of Carver’s story) – “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” – is not kept whole for the film, with Lovett, who is no natural in front of the camera, delivering it in a murmur. And this is symptomatic of the entire film, with Altman’s profound misunderstanding of Carver’s characters coming out in his failure to retain their essential qualities, connections and convictions.
On paper, the malaise of Carver’s stories must have seemed ripe pickings for Gen X LA, but the lack of faith in the source material and fear of not being interesting enough stymies the film’s drama, demoting these myriad tales from profundity to mundanity.
And the winner is…
Altman’s film is considered an achievement by many popular critics, but even when taking this into account, the winner can still only be Carver. As the man who shaped late-20th and early-21st century storytelling, Raymond Carver’s talent and influence are undeniable. Even without this notoriety or influence, however, the stories speak for themselves, sentence by sentence, page by page, heaping one quiet yet scathing domestic turn on the back of the next, sending us down the rabbit hole of human drama and out the other side.
Next Up: the painted bird (Jerzy Kosinski / Václav Marhoul)
About the Contributor
Alisdair Hodgson is a film, poetry, entertainment and fiction writer based in Scotland. He is also Bandit Fiction’s own Editor-in-Chief. His short fiction, poetry and non-fiction can be found in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies, and he always has something on the stove. Find him @Youthanised.