Short Cuts (film)

Short Cuts (Directed by Robert Altman)/1993

Watching Short Cuts makes you feel like a Buddha looking down into the petri dish of modern human existence: all squabbling over each other, each with their own fears, worries and weaknesses.  But it is not a bleak film as you may think it would be, rather its message seems to be that it is all part of course of human life.

The time is late 80s in the LA.  The film opens with the city lights sprawling across the darkness with helicopters circling around spraying chemicals, as we find out, to deal with Medfly epidemic.  There is a panic in the air as people worry about Medflies and getting cancer from the sprayed chemicals.  People are having domestics, some look resigned and others are simply not affected by it at all.

Short Cuts is about the lives of about 20 characters that are all related in some way.  Each has his/her own fears and desires, successes and failures.  They are all different: meek, aggressive, artistic, addictive, self-absorbed, caring, depressive, manic, desperate, intelligence, hedonistic, motherly etc.

The film starts off with the theme of pests (Medfly) but also carries on to depict pestering and irritability as part of the modern condition of human existence.  Bosses, customers, phone calls, mess, children and yapping dogs.  For these characters just living day to day without any incidents seems tiresome enough.

Fear also drives people to frenzy; depicted initially by cancer.  The film explores the rising fears of all these characters.  These are fears of losing whatever the character thinks is important to him or her: respect, love or control.  All these fears play out in a random and reactive way like a squash ball getting bounced around.  There is retribution, anger, escape, rampage and reconciliation.

One of the characters I found the most tragic was Jerry Kaiser, played by Chris Penn.  Jerry is a pool cleaner with 3 children and his wife runs a phone sex business from home.  As she goes about her chores she is on the phone talking dirty to other men as Jerry looks on anxiously.  He feels rejected and inadequate that he doesn’t earn enough meaning she has to do that work.  He is also worried that their young children will hear her.  Jerry just simmers away bottling up everything inside.

Altman then decides to increase the tension and throw some deaths into the story. Some go about their business as if nothing happened while others get deeply affected by it even if it’s not directly related to them.  But I didn’t feel that the characters were callous for not reacting to the death.  Somehow it was understandable that some would prioritise their own enjoyment because when people are down in the dumps, the moments of joy are so rare to come by, they feel desperate to relish it.

In the final climax of the film, there is a great earthquake that rattles up all these characters and creates confusion.  Jerry who had been bottling up all the tension finally explodes.  For others, their lives simply go on.  This film however isn’t about human resilience.  The part I found the most comforting about it was the moments of kindness characters show.  Despite where they were in the society, I felt that people who chose to act kindly and care for others, rose above where they were in their position in the socio economic scale.  They acted in a way that was truly human and their lives were richer for that, making it seem worthwhile to make an effort to be kind and care.

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