Inspired by the stories of Raymond Carver, Robert Altman takes a bleak look at modern relationships in his corrosive masterwork, Short Cuts
October 1993
By Jay McInerney
Photo Editor Tyler Pappas

Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine

Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher

It will come as no surprise to readers of Raymond Carver's fiction that Robert Altman's Short Cuts, loosely based on eight Carver stories, is not exactly a date movie. If marriage was Carver's abiding subject, the failure of love and of marital communication were his constant themes. We can turn to Jane Austen and Scott Fitzgerald for the tremulous joys of courtship; Raymond Carver was the poet of broken vows and stretch marks, empty glasses and repossessed dreams.

Carver's barely working‑class couples do not have the financial insulation of Updike's or the sophistication of Ann Beattie's: There's never enough money, too much booze, too few words to express their frustration and their longing. Altman upgrades several of Carver's couples socioeconomically (the pair played by Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore have become a doctor and a suc­cessful artist) and changes the setting to Los Angeles, which is definitely not Carver country. Bakersfield, maybe. Economic desperation is one of the constant corrosive elements in Carver's unions. Alcohol is another. All of the drinking and smoking that simultaneously fuels and anesthetizes his characters seems anomalous in contemporary Los Angeles, where you can get arrested for ordering a martini or lighting a cigarette in a restaurant.

Anne Archer and Fred Ward

Jack Lemmon and Bruce Davison

Like everything else‑credit, household appliances, good intentions‑words keep failing Carver's married couples. They fall back on clichés, leave their sentences and conversations unfinished, retreat into silence. In the story "A Serious Talk," an estranged husband returns to his wife's house for Christmas, allegedly to talk. "There were things he wanted to say, grieving things, consoling things, things like that." But be has no idea how to begin, and by the end of his visit, he has succeeded only in ruining Christmas, and, in a final act of frustrated communication, he cuts the phone line. In "One More Thing," a drunken husband named L. D. packs all his possessions in a Naugahyde suitcase with a broken clasp and insists on explaining himself to his wife, Maxine, on his way out. "He said, 'I just want to say one more thing.' But then he could not think what it could possibly be."

As the cinematic master of overlapping, mumbled, cross‑purposeful dialogue, Altman is a felicitous interpreter of Carver‑speak. Both Carver and Altman have a way of reminding us that the way we actually talk to one another is full of lacunae, ellipses and repetitions, that sentences are often left unfinished and questions unanswered, especially in the charged and narrow linguistic universe of a marriage. "'Be that way if you want But just remember… ," " says the husband in "So Much Water So Close to Home," which provides one of the essential story lines of Short Cuts "'Remember what?'" his wife asks. "He shrugs. 'Nothing, nothing,' he says."

It's a typical Carverian marital exchange, or non‑exchange. The wife, played by the luminous Anne Archer, is similarly unable to articulate her horror when she learns that her husband and his buddies, while on a three‑day fishing trip in mountains, had discovered a dead body upon their arrival, which they had failed to report until after they returned. Her husband (played by Fred Ward) points out, quite logically, that the dead woman was beyond help by the time they found her. But an ugly silence sets in and festers as the wife tries to imagine the life of the young woman whose naked body floated in the water while the men fished and drank; in her mind, her spouse becomes tainted by and somehow complicit in the murder, although she is unable to tell him exactly how.

In another story line, Christopher Penn plays a husband who suffers from an inarticulate rage that finally explodes in an act of violence echoing the untold story of the submerged body. Jennifer Jason Leigh -always as gritty as sand in a bed‑ plays Penn wife. She works for a phone‑sex service crooning obscenities into the receiver as she changes her baby's diapers. This latter, contemporary detail, original to the screenplay, would probably have pleased Carver immensely. The telephone plays a key role in his stories, usually as a menacing intrusion‑a latter‑day Trojan horse‑from the outside world into the beleaguered marital fortress, transmitting the voices of creditors, illicit lovers, anonymous and obscene callers. Lyle Lovett, incidentally, makes an excellent baker‑obscene phone caller in one of the other vignettes.

Annie Ross and Lori Singer

Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin

Carver would certainly recognize the gnarled, high‑mileage Tom Waits character as his own. Waits plays Earl Ober, from the story "They're Not Your Husband." Earl stops by the café where his wife, Doreen, works, in hopes of cadging a free meal and also, perhaps, to observe her in an extramarital environment. When a group of fishermen, on the way to their streamside rendezvous with a corpse, ask her for butter, she bends over to reach deep into the cooler, unwittingly presenting an intimate view of her thighs.

In Carver's original story, Earl is embarrassed because the other men at the counter comment unfavorably on his wife's ass. When he returns home, he puts her on a diet. A month later, he returns to the café to see what kind of reaction his now‑slimmer wife is get­ting; pretending to be just another customer, he declares to the man sitting next to him "Don't you think that's something special." And when the man tries to ignore him, he persists: "Look at the ass on her." It is an exquisitely awful scene; like Harold Pinter and his own friend Tobias Wolff, Carver was a master of the poetics of embarrassment.

Altman both compresses and expands on the voyeuristic café sequence, nicely exploiting his interwoven plots: The fishermen, after ogling Doreen's white thighs, go off to discover and ogle a bloated white body floating in a river‑a parallel that faintly corroborates the feeling of the Anne Archer character about her husband's guilt and complicity in the woman's lurid murder. Doreen, played to understated perfection by Lily Tomlin, returns to her trailer after her shift, where Tom Waits surreptitiously rinses the scotch out of his glass and starts yelling at her, ostensibly for flashing her booty at work. But in fact, he yells out of habit, and he yells at her preemptively to cover his own guilt about drinking and because there is not enough money for any kind of graciousness or dignity or privacy. Waits's Earl and Tomlin's Doreen dimly sense all of this themselves. If as a couple Earl and Doreen are trapped in their roles, there is a kind of grungy humanity in their persistence, their continued struggle to survive and cope, that is characteristic of Carver‑and that I miss in the movie's other, better‑heeled couples.

Carver's view of marriage was essentially tragic, but there is one especially beautiful, if morbid, image of marital love in his oeuvre that seems to me to blink like a distant, hopeful green light over the heavily mortgaged subdivisions and the discordant trailer parks. Not surprisingly, it is presented in an offstage incident, related across a kitchen table over a bottle of gin, in the famous story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

Two couples sit in the fading afternoon light somewhere in the Southwest, talking about love as they get sozzled. Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist, tells the story of an elderly couple who were involved in a terrible car wreck. A drunken teenager plows into their camper with a pickup truck. The kid dies. The couple, both in their mid‑seventies, are given a fifty‑fifty chance of survival after a night of surgery. They spend two weeks in intensive care and are then transferred to a private room. Both are in traction, both in body casts with holes in the plaster for eyes and nose and mouth. Even though the husband learns that his wife is going to pull through, he becomes very depressed. McGinnis tells his wife and the other couple why:

"I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn't everything. I'd get up to his mouth‑hole, you know, and he'd say, no, it wasn't the accident exactly but it was because he couldn't see her through his eyeholes. He said that was what was making him feel so had. Can you imagine? I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife… I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn't look at the fucking woman"

This, surely, is what we mean when we talk about love ‑and what we wish for when we want to believe in the sacrament of marriage ‑even if we need obscenity to shield and to distance ourselves a little from the sheer aching, uncool surrender of it.

Carver used to get upset when reviewers, even as they praised him, called his work grim and depressing. For him, I think, the triumph of creation, of giving form and shape to the often‑chaotic events and materials of his own early life, overshadowed the grim circumstances in which his characters are so often mired. He had survived alcoholism, bankruptcy and divorce. He'd been there, and the act of writing these stories was a redemptive act of tribal compassion and empathy. But in one of Carver's last stories, "Intimacy," a writer trying to explain the way he has written about marriage says to his angry ex‑wife "I admit I hold to the dark view of things."

Some of Carver's later stories, written after he had achieved a large measure of success in his writing life and tranquility in his domestic life, show a slightly mellower view of the marital condition. Shortly before he died of cancer, at the age of 50, Carver married his companion of ten years, the poet Tess Gallagher. As a married man, I like to think that he upwardly revised his notion of the institution at the very end of his life.

Jay McInerney, a former student and friend of Raymond Carver's, is working on his fifth novel.