The first thing you notice about Criterion's wonderfully inventive and informative laser-disc edition of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" ($125) is that it is anything but short.
Arguably more layered, intricate and artfully crafted than the 1993 film itself, the three-disc set requires you not only to just spend time with it, but also to work at it. It's not something you're going to curl up with on Saturday date night. But then again, neither is the bleak film-mosaic spun by Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt from nine Raymond Carver short stories and a poem.
Like many of Criterion's best laser discs--which still set the standard for careful laser-disc production as well as film reproduction--you get a lot for your money. With "Short Cuts," you get more than most.
The disc captures the complete Altman cinematic vision, since it is presented letterboxed in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2:35:1, transferred under the watchful eyes of cinematographer Walt Lloyd and editor Geraldine Peroni.
Also included is the complete text of the Carver stories and poem on which the film is based. Nicely printed on the screen, the stories provide more information on the characters in the film, since only two of them are in a form fairly close to Carver's. The rest offer dramatic themes and characters that capture Carver's sense of urban isolation and misunderstandings, transported by Altman from the Northwest to Los Angeles.
Two deleted scenes and an alternate take of one scene are on sides five and six, along with Mike Kaplan and John Dorr's excellent documentary on the making of the film, "Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country." One of the few such documentaries that enhances the viewing of a complex film, it offers interviews with virtually all 22 actors who made up this film troupe as well as Carver's widow (poet Tess Gallagher), and other creative people behind the scenes. Plus, of course, Altman himself.
If that's not enough, there's also the theatrical trailer, a teaser trailer, television spots, production stills, cast portraits and marketing material.
Two analog tracks can be played under the documentary soundtrack: an interview with former New Yorker critic and Altman champion Pauline Kael, and an audio essay by Michael Wilmington, a former film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times who is now film critic of the Chicago Tribune.
Another unique feature is that, in addition to the digitally reproduced Dolby soundtrack, you can listen to two analog tracks during the film's 183 minutes that present just the classical, jazz and pop music and effects.
"We got people who don't usually write this kind of music to write songs for (jazz singer-actress) Annie Ross," reports music director Hal Willner. Among those contributors were Elvis Costello, Bono, Horace Silver, Terry Adamus, and Doc Pomus & Mac Rebennack. There is also the Trout Quintet performing Dvorak's Cello Concerto in D Minor as well as actress Lori Singer playing Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, among other pieces. All are carefully noted by chapter stop.
This edition cleverly helps you cut across the separate, criss-crossing stories so that you can follow each "family," or disintegrating family, separately, by programming directly to specific chapter stops, something no laser edition in recent memory has tried before.
The aspirations of the laser production match the reach of the film itself. "The subtext of everything that's going on is extraordinarily dark," notes actor Buck Henry, "but the stuff that dances on the surface is funny and comic, and then hits you in the face."
What's going on at every level is the playing out of ordinary lives during ordinary and not-so-ordinary moments, riffs on a theme variously called entrancing, wayward, redundant, antic, alarmingly dispassionate, roaringly funny, telling and profound, cynical, sexist and shallow, and rich and unnerving by American critics.
Not surprisingly, Altman understatedly articulates what "Short Cuts" is all about: "The common denominator is ketchup--ketchup and a little alcoholism and a little infidelity and a little self-doubt."
This ambitious laser was overseen by producer Karen Rosen Stetler and executive producer Peter Becker.
New Movies Just Out: "Sister Act 2: A Change of Habit" (Touchstone, $40); "In the Name of the Father" (MCA/Universal, letterboxed, $40); "Tombstone" (Hollywood, $50, letterboxed); "Shadowlands" (HBO/Savoy, $40, letterboxed); "House Party 3" (New Line, $40); "Body Snatchers" (Warner, $40); "Grumpy Old Men" (Warner, $35); "Romeo Is Bleeding" (PolyGram, $35); "Searching for Bobby Fischer" (Paramount, $35); "Naked" (Image/Voyager, $70, letterboxed, commentary track by director Mike Leigh).
Older Movies Just Out: "The Emerald Forest" (1985, New Line, letterboxed, $40), director John Boorman's tale of a young American boy kidnaped and raised by a primitive Amazon tribe. "Chism" (1970, Warner, $35, letterbox), a Western in which John Wayne plays a cattle baron.Coming Soon: MCA/Universal's "Reality Bites," with Winona Ryder, Wednesday at $35; also Wednesday, Columbia TriStar's "Geronimo," with Jason Patric, at $35. Paramount's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" is due July 27 at $40.