Movie Battles: Short Cuts vs. Magnolia

I remember my first Paul Thomas Anderson viewing consisted of his 1999 sprawling three-hour mosaic Magnolia which was an episodic collection of vignettes loosely weaving together the lives of some twenty-three or so characters.  The film sported powerful performances from it’s ensemble cast and boasted brilliant technical filmmaking despite garnering a still divisive reputation among cinephiles and average moviegoers.  The one thing everyone seemed to be in agreement on however was the film’s now obvious similarity to and being in the shadow of the director Anderson briefly became an understudy of, Robert Altman and notably his 1993 film Short Cuts

Years went by before I myself became acquainted with Altman’s work and two weekends ago I finally managed to see Short Cuts, a sprawling three-hour mosaic which was an episodic collection of vignettes loosely weaving together the lives of some twenty-four or so characters, at the Music Box Theater’s 70mm Film Festival.  Low and behold, all the beats, themes, cuts, and even note for note scenes were all there in Altman’s film ready for PTA to do the cherry picking.  Even the finale of Magnolia felt like PTA was merely trying to one-up Altman in terms of the spectacular deus ex machina. 

Both films are masterful exercises in technical filmmaking, storytelling and ensemble acting featuring everything from moments of screwball comedy to hard hitting drama.  Both films happen to prominently feature Julianne Moore delivering elongated, neurotic and rambling soliloquys.  Both films include a scene of a character trying to asphyxiate themselves by turning the car on inside the garage.  Both films are guided by an omniscient singer commenting on the events ala Alan Price’s soundtrack to O Lucky Man! Both feature unforgettable monologues delivered by aged veteran actors.  Both films take place within California with one encompassing Los Angeles as the other covers San Fernando Valley.  And both movies aim to present life with all of it’s joys, sorrows, complexities and deeply felt emotions in microcosm. 

The question then becomes which of these two undeniably great masterworks by two of cinema’s most distinguished directors achieves a far greater artistic success than the other?  While one filmmaker did it first, which one did it better?  Which one did more people see?  And which one leaves a far more indelible impression on the viewer?  While structurally similar with many kindred ideas, each film leaves the viewer with a vastly different filmgoing experience with one leaving more heavy lifting for the audience to do than the other.  With this in mind, the Movie Sleuth takes a good look at both of these timeless and otherwise uncategorizable and sprawling ensemble dramas that redefine the term ‘epic’ with an elongated and dense study of the human condition only auteurs as gifted as Altman and Anderson could possibly tell.

Short Cuts (1993) – directed by Robert Altman

Most cinematic adaptations of an author’s work usually involve straight or loose adaptations of a singular story.  Few however comprise a multitude of said author’s works together in a kind of compendium giving viewers something of an overblown smorgasbord.  Enter grand master Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a three-hour dramedy based on not one but roughly nine short stories and a poem by the late author Raymond Carver.  Adapted into a screenplay co-written by Altman and Frank Barhydt, Short Cuts captures the essence of Carver even as it samples a bit of everything of his.  While Carver’s short stories over the years would receive standalone cinematic adaptations by various filmmakers, this is the only time a myriad of his stories were gelled together into one giant cinematic beast. 

Concerning the lives of 22 disparate yet loosely connected characters and transposing Carver’s Pacific Northwest backdrop to Los Angeles, Altman’s Short Cuts opens on a prophetic montage of a fleet of helicopters dropping pesticide over the region the characters reside in.  The film features everyone from Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Chris Penn, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand, Lori Singer, Andie MacDowell, Buck Henry, lounge singer Annie Ross and musicians Huey Lewis, Lyle Lovett and Tom Waits.  Not to mention the endless cameo appearances along the way, some of which provide meta commentary while others remain incidental to the proceedings. 

Compounded with Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue where multiple characters all talk at the same time, rendered in 6-track surround sound, Short Cuts is an episodic journey of sensory overload, comic invention and an unusual balancing act largely dealing with the hardships of life such as death and infidelity.  Dabbling in everything from a philandering cop, a depressed celloist, a phone sex operator, a pool cleaner, fishermen who make a startling discovery, a clown, a doctor and an estranged grandfather, Short Cuts like the title suggests quickly cross-cuts between each of these characters’ lives and somehow manages to balance out all of the disparate stories.  Though completely separate, the occasional crossovers these people make generate consequences greater than they or we would initially think.

Shot in Super 35 widescreen by Walt Lloyd and edited with a whip by Geraldine Peroni, Short Cuts is a grandiose, fascinating, frustrating, funny and even troubling look at modern life in Los Angeles.  The film also is loosely aided by a new age, often somber score by electronic musician Mark Isham.  Maintaining his use of the zoom lens, long takes, tracking shots and of course the overlapping dialogue, Short Cuts presents Altman revisiting the terrain he laid with Nashville while focusing on a more abstract and decidedly darker band of outsiders.  While some of the cast members’ stories are often amusing, the unforgettably heavy notes dig their claws deep into the viewers emotional safe spaces. 

Take for instance a thread involving a young boy struck by a car on the way home from school.  At first it seems like an aside and then proceeds to build and build in the unforgiving ways life often does.  Some of the strongest scenes boil down to either soliloquys including a towering sequence delivered by Jack Lemmon and a heated exchange between Matthew Modine and a bottomless Julianne Moore.  Short Cuts is also completely frank about the sexuality of the characters’ lives, often sporting casual nudity which doesn’t so much aim to titillate as it further stresses the deeply buried frustrations running through many of the characters’ day to day interpersonal struggles. 

If Short Cuts is categorized as a sexy comedy, it is inarguably the heaviest one out there.  There are scenes that will make the viewer laugh aloud with others that will leave you in a stunned silence, all the while still maintaining a disparate abstraction from vignette to vignette.  Some will question whether or not the endeavor needed to be so overblown yet I don’t think Altman’s intent is for the viewer to recall every anecdotal encounter upon initial viewing.  Like the pesticide dropping helicopters opening the film, Altman drops you in the middle of it all, giving you little to navigate your way through the tragicomic travelogue.  Short Cuts is the kind of film that challenges everything we know about the movies regarding the prototypical beginning, middle and end which will enthrall many and aggravate others looking for cohesion and resolution to the maze that is Altman’s film.  Still, like The Razor’s Edge hero Larry Darrell says when confronted with the burning question about the meaning of life, “there is no payoff”.


Magnolia (1999) – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

After the critical and commercial success of his second feature Boogie Nights, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoyed both newfound acclaim as a fresh new auteur to watch for in addition to being branded a ripoff artist for his film’s close proximity to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  True or not, that didn’t stop the (at the time) young maverick director absorbing the influences of both Sidney Lumet’s Network through the structural prism of Robert Altman’s sprawling ensemble epic Short Cuts with his next feature Magnolia: a fast, hard and heavy mosaic of vignettes concerning the loosely connected lives of some twenty three or so characters in San Fernando Valley over the course of one day. 

Loosely linked by an opening prologue pertaining to the nature of chance alongside a recurring motif of the Exodus 8:2 biblical passage which pays off later, the film is a tapestry of derailed, damaged or otherwise broken lives headed toward some sense of self-actualization or self-destruction.  Featuring much of his Boogie Nights cast including Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and Alfred Molina, Anderson’s film seems to follow in the footsteps of Altman’s epic tragicomedy while channeling the director’s own riff on Martin Scorsese’s use of the zoom lens, the tracking shot, the whip pan and the use of the freeze frame in key moments.  If that’s not enough, Anderson even restages the now famous rotating set piece from Network into a television show of competing child geniuses. 

Aided by an Academy Award nominated supporting performance by Tom Cruise (one of his very best by the way) and containing the final performance of Jason Robards in a role not dissimilar from his own state of physical health at the time, Magnolia is an aggressively dark and troubling masterpiece that provides as much human warmth through the characters’ respective dilemmas as it serves up moments of pain and anguish.  In the place of Annie Ross’ recurring lounge singing permeating Short Cuts are recurring songs by Aimee Mann, ala Alan Price’s contributions to O Lucky Man!, which serve to comment on the drama when the ensemble cast doesn’t burst into song with Mann.  Far more technically proficient than Altman’s picture with a bevy of elaborate visual effects shots and a grand finale that tries to one-up Altman’s deus ex machina, Magnolia is a visually exciting film to behold with an even greater emphasis on the power of montage.  This was also to be the first of two collaborations with composer Jon Brion whose use of the organ and orchestral strings are at once filled with longing in addition to joy, evoking a mood that is difficult to come to terms with.

In later years, Anderson would look back at Magnolia with, much like the Jason Robards character, a sense of regret that he didn’t do more to whittle down the film’s sprawling length.  The film was enormously well received critically but it didn’t have the same box office pull of his previous feature.  It didn’t help that the director’s love for Altman couldn’t shake the views of some who felt he was just imitating Short Cuts.  Anderson ups the ante with the troubled backstories of his ensemble cast of characters but it provides a resolution which Altman’s film defiantly refuses to give, raising the question of which of the two films is less compromising to their respective audiences.  Arguably it wasn’t until Anderson’s oddball romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love that the writer-director began to find his own cinematic language before further mastering his command of the medium with There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice.  Still, what’s here in Magnolia is indeed very strong and affecting even as it looms in the shadow of Altman.



And the winner is of course the far sharper edged sword Short Cuts for a myriad of reasons.  While not as kinetic and abstract as the film it would clearly inspire years later, Robert Altman’s audiovisual exercise is told in a cinematic language relative to no one else’s but his own.  Where Magnolia plays like a cacophony of influences, Short Cuts charges full steam ahead with little concern whether an audience is on board or not.  Moreover, unlike Magnolia, it doesn’t let you off the hook after the picture ends.  Some might come away arguing Short Cuts doesn’t tie together the varying loose ends but life itself is full of disconnected abstractions where people seem to get away with murder and all we can do is admit to our own powerlessness to stop it from happening.  

Magnolia strikes viewers hard but comparatively is the easier film to digest.  Short Cuts, like it or not, is clearly the more challenging of the two.  While Anderson would indeed find his own niche with his subsequent features, Magnolia was made at a time when he was still figuring things out as he celebrated his own favorite movies.  Altman, on the other hand, was a master filmmaker at the top of his game whose idiosyncratic cinematic language never once owed itself to anything.

-      -       Andrew Kotwicki