I go through phases in my movie-watching, and right now I’m in a Robert Altman phase. As I mentioned the other day, Mr. Altman is a master at filming ensemble pieces. Last night I watched Short Cuts, which I hadn’t seen in several years. Short Cuts is a mélange of little stories whose characters bump up against each other in surprising ways.
The first time I’d watched it was at the behest of Carel the IT god and Suzanne, my sister-in-law. Her take on it was that it showed how all of our lives are interconnected. I’ll grant her that, but this time around I was struck more by how so many of the characters live in worlds sealed off from those closest to them. There is the dramatic cellist, who has acted out her suicidal tendencies so often that her mother, the nightclub singer, who seems to live in a sort of fantasy world of her own devising, is incapable of responding when it truly matters.
The film has all of these married couples who no longer connect, if they ever did. There is the doctor who comes home, after losing a patient, to his wife, the artist, who lives in a world of painted nudes. For whatever reason, he cannot talk about the eight-year-old who died that day. Instead, he wants to know why it is that being nude automatically makes it art. From her perspective, that’s a Philistine attitude, but it seems to me that it’s a pretty good question.
As I watched Mr. Altman’s 183-minute epic, I was reminded of a strange novel called Die Blendung, by Elias Canetti, an Austrian who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. Die Blendung means ‘the blinding.’ The English translation is entitled Auto-da-fe.
In this novel, each character lives in a world devoted to his own particular obsession. When these world collide, the characters are often fooled into thinking that their obsessions are shared. Instead, what we get is a comic tragedy bordering on farce. Two people appear to start a relationship, but each is actually just as isolated as before.
Canetti talks about how the germ of the book came to him as he was moving into a new apartment. The landlady kept up a running tirade, the day he moved in, about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket, which was clear if for no other reason that ‘potatoes cost double already.’ After she finally left him alone, he threw himself into getting her tirade down on paper. Later, he realized that he needn’t have worried about it. She went through the exact same song and dance every time she saw him.
Likewise, the characters in Short Cuts are trapped in their own patterns of thought and behavior. In this world where nobody is connected, there are no happy endings. Actually, there are no endings at all. When the film ends, various combinations of characters are in various stages of breakup or reconciliation, but very little is actually settled. The nightclub singer, after her daughter really does kill herself, ends up wallowing in self-pity, belting out another song about the good old days that probably never were.