Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Shortcut into the World of Raymond Carver

Robert Altman has never been accused of artistic cowardice. The director (and often the writer) of such films as MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville,  and Gosford Park, liked nothing more than gathering stars of all persuasions into stories that require ensemble acting. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement along these lines was taking the body of cryptic short stories by American master Raymond Carver and organizing nine of them (along with a narrative poem) into a complex, multi-faceted narrative. The film, called Short Cuts, made its debut in 1993, five years after Carver’s death.

I didn’t know much about Raymond Carver until I tackled the major biography published in 2009 by a colleague I met through BIO, the Biographers International Organization. The very talented  Carol Sklenicka  (whose upcoming biography of writer Alice Adams comes out December 5) spent more than a decade talking to everyone in Carver’s orbit. In her Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, I learned a great deal about a guy from a blue-collar family in the Pacific Northwest who put his writing ahead of just about everything else. His characters are hard-scrabble folk, some of whom (like Carver himself) are all too fond of booze. They can be crass and crude, especially to those who love them, but they’re also subject to moments of surprising tenderness. The stories are realistic in the telling: there’s little in the way of heroics, and no literary fluff involved. Fans of the Oscar-winning Birdman may remember that Michael Keaton’s character, eager to shrug off his superhero persona, is desperate to stage a kitchen-sink Broadway production of Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

In the course of a thirty-year writing career, Carver made several stabs at screenwriting.. Over time, some of his own stories were turned into short films by others, but Robert Altman was far more ambitious in his approach. Moving the Carver stories to gritty Southern California neighborhoods, he carefully interwove them, so that the driver of the car that hits the little boy in “A Small Good Thing” is the waitress with the jealous spouse in “They’re Not Your Husband.” And the men who ogle that waitress in that story’s diner are headed for the fishing trip that’s central to “So Much Water So Close to Home.”

Leave it to Altman to come up with an amazingly potent cast, one that includes Lily Tomlin as that waitress and Tom Waits as her hubby, Others in on the action include Julianne Moore, Buck Henry, Matthew Modine, and Frances McDormand,. To put a SoCal spin on the stories, Peter Gallagher plays a medfly-spraying helicopter pilot named Stormy Weathers, while Robert Downey Jr. is a make-up artist with a kinky streak. The meshing of so many stories mostly works, but I have my gripes. One story wholly invented by Altman, involving a classical cellist with severe mental issues, seems too baroque and show-offy for Carver’s world. And though the meshing of plot lines leads to some hilarious moments, it also works against the richest of the Carver stories. The climax of “So Much Water,” involving a woman’s ambiguous grief over the death of someone she doesn’t know, doesn’t seem nearly as strong on film as it does on the page. And though the gut-wrenching loss within “A Small Good Thing” (in which Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison keep a bedside vigil for their young son) may be enhanced by the sudden appearance of Jack Lemmon as Davison’s oblivious father, the story’s heart-tugging coda lacks force. Still, if Short Cuts leads viewers to Carver, who can complain?

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