It was three years ago on a transatlantic flight that Robert Altman fell for Raymond Carver. "I was flying back from France to L.A. and asked my secretary to get me some books for the plane and she got me a bunch of Carver stories," recalls Altman of his first encounter with the source material for his new film, "Short Cuts," an ambitious work that runs more than three hours and charts events in the lives of 22 characters.
"By the time I got off of the plane, I remember saying to myself, 'This should be a movie.' I guess I just responded to the fractured people Carver writes about and the truthfulness of the world he evokes."
The world Carver evokes is essentially the same gritty working-class America Altman evoked so beautifully in such films as "The Long Goodbye" and "Nashville." It's a world film-goers saw fairly often in the early '70s when masterful American movies like "Fat City," "Five Easy Pieces," and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" were coming out at a regular clip, but it's been largely absent from mainstream movies in recent years.
Exploring the collapse of human relations, the numbing effect of relentlessly dull jobs, and the addictions and systems of denial that enable people to survive intolerable circumstances, this genre resides smack in the middle of Carver country, and it's terrain Altman knows like the back of his hand.
"Carver wrote about a generation and class of people who drank a lot, and the problems he wrote about are seen through the prism of a man who understood alcoholism, but he translated those problems into a wider metaphor," says "Short Cuts" actor Buck Henry of Carver, who struggled with alcoholism and often explored it in his writing.
"You don't have to be an alcoholic to read Carver and sense that he's writing about the breakdown of behavior in a society where behavior has been rapidly breaking down for 25 years," adds Henry, who appears with Huey Lewis and Fred Ward as part of a trio who go on an ill-fated fishing trip. "Everybody is dysfunctional now--this is something Altman was addressing as far back as 'Nashville,' and it's a situation Carver wrote about with the least amount of affect of any writer of his generation."
Credited with having played a key role in the revitalization of the short story, a form dismissed as all but dead when Carver's fourth volume of stories, "Cathedral," began garnering critical praise in 1983, the author died in Port Angeles, Wash., of lung cancer in 1988 at age 50. Carver's 11th and final collection of poems and stories, "A New Path to the Waterfall," was published the year after his death to rave reviews, but he's hardly a household name. That may change with the release of "Short Cuts."
Based on nine stories and one poem, the film is getting phenomenally good word-of-mouth, and shared the Golden Lion for best film at the recent Venice Film Festival. Working from a screenplay written with Frank Barhydt, Altman is said to have translated Carver's sensibility to the screen with remarkable accuracy and sensitivity, despite the fact that he was hardly slavishly faithful to the material.
Riffing on Carver's work with the casual rigor of an ace jazz musician, Altman has shifted the locale of the stories from the Pacific Northwest, where nearly all of Carver's work is set, to L.A.
He's inserted new characters into some stories, fleshed out minor characters, and transposed characters from one story to another. He made music an integral part of the film by creating two characters (played by Lori Singer and Annie Ross) who are musicians, he unified the film by bookending it with two events that all 22 characters experience, and, most significantly, he noticeably darkened the tone of Carver's writing.
"One of the things people seem to love in Ray's writing is that it gives you the sense that these people are still struggling with their lives and are dismayed at the turn their lives have taken," observes poet Tess Gallagher, who was Carver's companion for 10 years and married him two months before his death. "One doesn't have that feeling with Altman--rather, you get the sense that these people are just swept up in the velocity of events, and there's more collision and less hope.
"When the film was being made, I remember going to dailies and wondering where the reflective moments in the film were going to be, and now that it's done I find some, but there aren't as many as you find in Ray's work," adds Gallagher who, at Altman's invitation, was an active participant in the making of the film.
"I don't think this is because film isn't conducive to reflective moments--I think it's because Bob has a different vision, and part of what he's trying to show us is how little time there is in American life for reflection."
Though most who have seen the film agree Altman put a rougher edge on Carver's material, this isn't to suggest that Carver's writing was a day in the park. Prior to getting sober and meeting Gallagher in 1977, Carver's life was by all accounts a chaotic mess, and his loosely autobiographical writing is populated with characters who exist in a state of psychological desperation just this side of hysteria.
Born in 1938 in the small logging town of Clatskanie, Ore., Carver was the son of an alcoholic who was a saw filer for a lumber mill. By the time he was in third grade, Carver had decided he wanted to be a writer, but was sidetracked when he found himself married and the father of two by the age of 20.
He spent the '60s struggling to get through Humboldt State University while working a series of odd jobs--he picked tulips, swept hospital corridors, pumped gas--and managed to graduate in 1963 with a degree in English.
Those grim jobs and the people he met provided the raw material for Carver's work, and it was a world he never turned his back on.
"I'm a paid-in-full member of the working poor," Carver told the New York Times in 1987. "I have a great deal of sympathy with them. They're my people."
Carver was writing regularly during those difficult years, and he published his first volume of poetry, "Near Klamath," in 1968. Two more books of poetry followed in 1970 and 1974, and in 1976 he published his first book of short stories, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Though the book received mixed reviews, it nonetheless introduced the blueprint for Carver's mature style.
Often set at the precise moment when the fragile veil of civility is about to give way to mayhem, Carver's stories evoke a world where the volume is turned up on mundane events to the point that they've become skewed and out of kilter.
"You could never accuse Carver of being a romantic because he always depicts people in those moments when their character flaws are most painfully evident," observes Tim Robbins, who turns up in "Short Cuts" as a philandering cop who compulsively lies to his wife, played by Madeleine Stowe. "Carver seemed acutely aware of the pettiness all humans are capable of, and I think he made his writing revolve around that to sound a kind of warning.
"The thing that knocks me out about Carver's writing, though, is that when you meet his characters you feel you know them," Robbins adds. "When I first moved to L.A. from New York, I wound up living in the San Fernando Valley and working in a factory, and the people I hung out with were straight out of Carver. Some people say he writes about oddballs, but I saw behavior in that world that was much more aberrant than anything you find in his stories."
Carver's people may not be oddballs but they're certainly outlaws, in that the profound loneliness they suffer has made them oblivious to the fact that they're part of a larger social fabric, and has led them to behave with a peculiar randomness. Carver's characters seem to wander through his stories with no particular game plan in mind, and they sail past the social rules that exert some constraint on most people with remarkable ease.
"Infidelity was one of Carver's central themes and his only comment on it was that it exists," says Altman, who explores that theme through characters played by Julianne Moore, Mathew Modine, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher and Robbins. "Carver was a pragmatist and never wrote about things the way he thought they should be--he wrote about life as he observed it. A lot of his writing was inspired by things he read in the newspaper, and from what I understand, he rarely sat down and invented things out of whole cloth--he just took stories he heard and embellished them."
Like Beckett, Carver found comedy in the bone-rattling horror of the situations many people find themselves mired in, and a current of gallows humor runs through much of his work; this aspect of his writing is very much present in "Short Cuts."
"Bob definitely put a darker spin on Carver's material, which I find very funny, but I think the movie's funny too," says Madeleine Stowe who, along with the rest of the cast, was given a collection of Carver's work by Altman when she was cast in the film. "The first shot in the film where you see these ridiculous helicopters coming in like huge insects is hysterical."
For all the absurd humor in Carver's stories, he is by no means a lighthearted writer; central to nearly all his work is the notion that people are doomed to disappoint one another. Despite that, his stories are grounded in an unshakable belief in the sanctity of human relations and the essential nobility of the human spirit.
"Carver often wrote about people who were unable to deliver in a pinch and about decent people doing indecent things," observes Jack Lemmon, who plays a weak, ineffectual father who abandons his son, played by Bruce Davidson, whenever trouble brews. "In his eyes this doesn't make them terrible people--they're simply flawed. Carver reminds me of Tennessee Williams in his ability to make you empathize with people you'd have a hard time relating to under most circumstances," adds Lemmon, whose character is drawn from the poem "Lemonade."
With the publication of his first book of stories in 1976, Carver also published his fourth volume of poetry, and the following year came out with a second book of stories, "Furious Seasons." His productivity was remarkable considering that he had begun drinking heavily in the late '60s, his marriage was in a shambles, and he often wrote in his car to escape his unhappy home. He spent the '70s bouncing in and out of rehab facilities, separated from his wife in 1977, and divorced her in 1982.
Carver had been sober for five months when he met Gallagher at a writers' conference at the University of Texas in 1977, and at that point his life began to change dramatically. He turned out three more books of poetry and a volume of stories in the early '80s, and with the publication of "Cathedral," success descended on him with a loud bang. The book was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and Carver's work was henceforth taken very seriously.
Labeled by the literary establishment as either a minimalist or a "dirty realist," he was praised for forging an original style that was as distinctly American as Kerouac's, as blunt and unembellished as Hemingway's. Criticism of his work invariably lauds its economy, and Carver is definitely a meat and potatoes story teller--he once described his approach to writing as "Get in. Get out. Don't linger."
Carver's style is inarguably highly defined and distinctive, and one wonders how much poetic license Altman felt he could allow himself without violating the integrity of Carver's sensibility. "The stories themselves dictated how much we could bend them," says Altman.
Adds Tess Gallagher: "I never felt that Altman's nose had to be thrust down in Carver's dish, but I thought that for the film to be true to Ray's spirit it needed to be anchored by at least two stories that remained fairly true to how they were written. Bob strikes two very full Carver chords with his interpretation of 'So Much Water So Close To Home,' and 'A Small Good Thing,' and those two stories provide the film with a wonderful weight and unity." (This month Vintage Paperbacks will publish "Short Cuts," a collection of the Carver writings Altman used in the film).
Perhaps Altman's greatest interpretive gamble is the invention of the character played by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who portrays a bored housewife who helps support her kids by making phone sex calls at home. For all its emotional brutality, Carver's writing is curiously chaste, and it's hard to imagine him writing the words Jason-Leigh utters on screen.
"It's true Carver never wrote about sex in graphic terms, but he does write about people who are very dark, and this woman is a variation on that," says Jason-Leigh. "She's very much a Carver woman in that she lives a seemingly routine life that she's only able to maintain through tremendous denial. In a sense, my scenes are about the undercurrent of violence and the desire to kill present in everyone's nature. This woman is in total denial about the fact that her life is in any way abnormal, yet she destroys everyone around her."
Though "Short Cuts" is a bit randier than anything Carver ever wrote, Altman was vigilant in honoring one of the key qualities of Carver's writing, which is its lack of irony. Carver always wrote straight from the heart and with a touching solemnity, and he never played his characters for laughs; this was the one thing Gallagher encouraged Altman to be mindful of.
"Because the syntax of film is juxtapositional, it has an element of irony automatically built into it, and Ray used irony very sparingly," says Gallagher.
The most readily apparent area where Altman gave himself license to play fast and loose was with structure.
Though Carver's writing has a fragmented, episodic quality compatible with Altman's sensibility, his stories are resolutely linear; the cornerstone of Altman's style is rejection of linear narrative in favor of a multilayered tapestry comprised of small moments and brief interludes. Life doesn't move forward toward a resolution in Altman's work; rather, it hovers in an odd time warp as it's placed under a microscope for the viewer's examination.
"I'm not telling stories--I'm handing over a tray full of stuff," says Altman, who plans to do a trilogy of films based on Carver's material. "What appeals to me is the idea of lifting up the roof of a house and watching the behavior going on inside. The idea of relating a story in A-B-C terms has never interested me at all."
Altman's instincts appear to have served him well. "I've never had a picture get the kind of reception this one is receiving," he says of the film, which also features Andie McDowell, Chris Penn, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Anne Archer, Lyle Lovett, Lili Taylor and Robert Downey Jr. "A lot of people hated 'Nashville' but I haven't found anybody yet who hasn't liked 'Short Cuts.'
"The film has really been embraced by the literary community and Carver's presence is obviously the reason why," he adds. "Gore Vidal, Arthur Miller, Joan Didion and John Dunne--these people went wild when they saw it, and I think if I'd made exactly the same film and it wasn't based on anything, the perception would be quite different. There's quite a myth that's grown up around Carver and to a degree that myth is fed by the fact that he's dead, that he had a difficult life, and he was a recovered alcoholic. But mostly, the myth revolves around legitimate admiration for the simple beauty of his writing."