I was first introduced to the concept of “guilty pleasure” (one not related to the tribulations of adolescence or ruler-happy nuns thwacking out at the slightest transgression, at least) through the auspices of Film Comment magazine back in the late ’70s. At that time the magazine ran, as a recurring feature, articles written by various luminaries of film—directors and actors, usually, with the occasional high-profile writer or cinematographer thrown in for good measure—who would recount the sodden treasures of their film-going pasts, ones that helped make them the artists they were or in some way retained particular personal meaning for them. Of course the whole point of the series was the revealing of their dirty little secrets, their love for films disregarded, ill-regarded, derided or otherwise forgotten by critics, audiences and film historians.
Short Cuts (#1–10 of 5)
Australia (Baz Luhrmann). For about a minute or so, Australia promises to be some psychedelic version of The New World, but emotion is quickly subsumed by Baz Luhrmann’s effusive style. The Wizard of Oz is referenced throughout, sometimes charmingly, but it’s Gone with the Wind that Luhrmann’s most interested in, grossly amplifying the 1939 classic’s worst tendencies (and little of what makes it special): Luhrmann desperately announces his conviction to the displacement of half-white, half-aboriginal children, but his way of celebrating the spirituality of Australia’s aboriginal people is by depicting them as, you know, magical negroes. And the horseshit doesn’t end there. Maybe Luhrmann was pooped by the time he filmed Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman’s reunion, but the way he botches their sightlines is just one example of how uncommitted he is to making their stone-cold romance seem credible. Are we supposed to think their affections for one another is rooted in anything deeper than that really gross harlequin-romance shot of Jackman flashing Kidman his pubes?
For nearly a decade, I’ve felt a certain allegiance to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and I’d never seen a single frame of it. It was always known as a “big sister” to the sprawling ensemble films that I became obsessed with in the late 90s; if I loved movies like Magnolia so much, then there’s no doubt that Altman’s opus must’ve been exceptional. I took this allegiance so far as to chide anyone who would praise any new “tapestry film” with interlocking stories because, if they knew anything, they’d know that Short Cuts did it first.
Now, finally, I’ve met the “big sister.”
As Altman has put it, Short Cuts is not necessarily a group of stories, but rather a group of occurrences. It lifts the roofs off houses and peeks in on the conversations. And it’s not what the characters are doing that’s important, it’s the fact that they are doing it (and why and how). The film is not concerned with plot, but with people; the rest will take care of itself. It’s a risky approach, and even Altman himself isn’t always successful with the method—The Company took a similar tack with a smaller cast and more plot, and it didn’t work as well as it should have. But it works in Short Cuts.
“Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin says, you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo. The second penguin says, what makes you think I’m not?” — Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
“So by all means let’s plant poles all across the country, festoon the cocksucker with wires, to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgements and motive ... Ain’t the state of things cloudy enough? Don’t we face enough fuckin’ imponderables?” — Al Swearengen, Deadwood
And so we face another imponderable with the news that director Robert Altman has passed away at age 81. The particulars of his death will no doubt surface in subsequent news reports (and I personally believe that Altman would prefer we focus on how he lived as opposed to how he died). But it’s no surprise that the few obituaries I’ve read thus far do little more than reformulate and regurgitate the received wisdom on this great film artist, praising M*A*S*H for the umpteenth time; consigning most, if not all of his 80s work to a barren, forgotten wilderness; slapping him on the back for his 90s “resurgence” with The Player and Short Cuts; and finally remarking with thinly veiled, aw-shucks irony (and decontextualized supporting pull quote) that his swan song, A Prairie Home Companion, is all about “death.”
Why is it so hard to make myself write an appreciation of Christopher Penn? Because I know that on my best day, I can’t convey one hundreth of his roiling, unstable excitement.
Chris Penn was a human hand grenade who lived to pull his own pin. He scared the shit out of me. He was on a short list of great contemporary character actors (Keitel, Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Jason Leigh) who truly seemed capable of anything. It’s always easier to write an appreciation of someone who makes you feel good. Chris Penn was a great actor—a vital and important actor—but I suspect he’d have been the first to admit that generating warm and fuzzy feelings didn’t rank very high on his “To Do” list.