Here’s a game: Pick a movie from the 21st century. Any movie works, though I’d prefer a good one.
Chances are, the flick you chose is within six degrees of Short Cuts. That’s right: The 1993 Robert Altman-directed drama is the Kevin Bacon of movies — and while Bacon himself doesn’t appear, virtually everyone else in Hollywood does.
Based on the writings of Raymond Carver, Short Cuts follows about 25 characters living seemingly separate lives in Los Angeles. Little by little, their worlds overlap and then explode alongside an unforeseen act of God (which I won’t spoil here).
Short Cuts opens with a shot of helicopters spraying pesticides over the city, and as we see panicked parents rush their children indoors, we sense more darkness may lurk ahead.
Through a series of revealing and short, well, cuts, Altman introduces a litany of fractured relationships: There’s Gene (Tim Robbins), who’s cheating on his wife, Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) with Betty (Frances McDormand), whose ex, Stormy (Peter Gallagher), happens to be one of the helicopter pilots. Then there’s Sherri’s sister, Marian (Julianne Moore), whose marriage to Ralph (Matthew Modine) is wrought with tension. Their friends Claire (Anne Archer) and her husband, Stuart (Fred Ward) seem solid … until Stuart reveals a disturbing act.
Not to be outdone, tired mother Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works as a phone sex operator, which displeases her husband, Jerry (Chris Penn). Jerry’s pal Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) is married to Honey (Lili Taylor), but his eye wanders. And on and on.
Many movies have been made about infidelity, but in Short Cuts, we’re buried nose-deep in it. And, speaking of burials, the few characters that appear to have healthy love lives in this movie are confronted with — wait for it — a heaping helping of death.
So yes, I realize this film sounds ultra-grim, but that’s not entirely the case. Between (and sometimes during) a series of tragic events, Short Cuts is incredibly funny and delightfully weird. “Wouldn’t that be a trip if Alex Trebek bought a nude painting of me?” Sherri asks in one of several scenes referencing the Jeopardy! host. (Trebek even makes a cameo.) Betty’s young son, surrounded by chaos, is wholly preoccupied with the ‘90s cartoon Captain Planet. Gene’s a creepy cat, but the way he goes about his liaisons is ridiculous; in one scene, he hits on a birthday party clown.
It’s worth mentioning that Short Cuts also features quite a bit of female nudity: We see characters getting out of the shower, going skinny-dipping, posing for an artist, lying dead in the water. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Ralph gets into a screaming match with Marian, who’s wearing a cropped shirt and nothing else. These moments can catch us off-guard, not solely because of the bare skin, but because Altman usually displays them in a fairly non-sexual context.
And I know it’s easy to rave about a soundtrack, but Short Cuts’ music is particularly special, as the cast often performs it. Annie Ross, who portrays a discontented lounge singer, belts out several mood-setting standards. (“I hate L.A.,” her character laments. “All they do is snort coke and talk.”) Her daughter is played by Footloose and Fame alum Lori Singer, who plays the cello throughout the film.
Rounding out the cast’s musical pedigree are Tom Waits (a drunken chauffer), Huey Lewis (a macho fisherman) and Lyle Lovett (a disturbed baker). They never perform, but each is so famous in real life that it underscores Altman’s appreciation of the arts and ability to utilize different types of talent onscreen.
So back to the original idea: How exactly can one link Short Cuts to today’s releases? Well, in addition to its connected cast, Altman’s movie incorporates several themes that pop up a lot in modern-day storytelling.
The casual, overlapping dialogue — the feeling that we’re eavesdropping on these characters’ conversations — is a concept Altman pioneered with 1970’s MAS*H. Today, the technique is so common it can go unnoticed; directors like Richard Linklater, Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg have put their own stamps on it.
Short Cuts is a great example of pairing darkness with light, something we see in many flicks from the Coen brothers (Fargo, A Serious Man) and Alexander Payne (The Descendents, About Schmidt). Like Darren Aronofsky’s work, it tells an epic story without losing its relatability or attention to detail. Its precise musical selection is a hallmark of many contemporary movies, too.
And then there’s the grand message of Short Cuts, the idea that in this big, scary universe, we’re all connected. Altman fan and former collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson also emphasizes this, particularly in 1999’s Magnolia. Ditto for Paul Haggis’ Crash, which won the Oscar for best picture in 2005. As any Lost fan will attest, the notion of dozens of characters connecting in unexpected ways … well, that’s basically the backbone of the series.
Upon its release 21 years ago, Short Cuts received critical raves but wasn’t a big box-office hit, earning just over $6 million. While it was nominated for several awards, it lost an Oscar and Golden Globe to another notable film out that year: Schindler’s List.
In the last few years Short Cuts has been rediscovered through a deluxe Criterion release and posthumous appreciation of Altman, who died in 2006. It’s an entertaining and meaningful work from a man who made his name as a filmmaker — but over time, has also become a teacher.
Whitney Matheson (@whitneymatheson) is a pop-culture writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.