I saw “Shortcuts” the other day after not having seen it in about ten years. It is, unarguably, a devastating movie, but it affected me much differently than before.
As a teenager I had viewed all the troubled characters with a gulf of inexperience between myself and them, their sadness and psychoses so foreign and pathetic to me. This time I saw facets of people I know and myself in them, and it left me feeling pretty depressed.
Here’s a short summary of the film for those who haven’t seen it. Released in 1993, it’s based loosely on various Raymond Carver short stories, and cuts between multiple plots involving characters who we find out are all somehow connected- I say it’s a “web of life” flick, and they say it’s a “hyperlink” film. It is also a satire of Los Angeles, and so involves car accidents, untalented artists, starving musicians, earthquakes, and lots of alcoholism. Tragedy of different varieties befalls nearly every character – it’s like a continuous punch in the gut for three hours.
There were times during the film when I thought, “Oh that couldn’t happen,” but I suppose I was trying to make myself feel better, for quickly thereafter I’d grudgingly acknowledge the logical trajectory of the scene or motive of the character. And so with every plot twist I became more despondent, repeating phrases like “Oh man… Oh man…” and “Why is life so sad?” and finally, “What’s the point of making a movie like this?”
Altman takes us into the dark realms of the characters’ personal lives to illustrate a greater social problem– that people are inherently alienated from each other (even married couples, families, friends, or siblings). They don’t seem to know or care about one another’s inner states, or have the ability to see things from each other’s perspectives. They are indifferent towards anything that doesn’t satisfy their own impulses or further their agendas. You can just zoom out from there- if they don’t feel any responsibility towards the people to whom they are theoretically closest, they certainly wouldn’t feel responsibility towards strangers or the larger social network.
The theme of decisions and consequence comes up time and again. Everyone is fixated on the micro- their obsessions, hang-ups, responsibilities, and insecurities, with no perspective on how their actions affect others. Throughout the film you watch characters make decisions with this mindset, more often than not resulting in dire consequences. Bad decisions not only hurt the people you love, but can also hurt strangers, be it now or maybe even years from now. To me the saddest consequences are the ones of which the perpetrators aren’t even aware- their actions silently wreak havoc while they carry on, happy and oblivious.
The climax of the film comes involves a massive earthquake, and we get a chance to see how everyone will act in the face of something larger than himself or herself. Unfortunately, they act exactly how you’d expect them to: the fun-loving couple makes a joke of it, the policeman starts barking orders through a bullhorn at his neighbors, while a depressed woman doesn’t acknowledge it at all. Just when you hope for catharsis, there is none. Maybe this is Altman’s way of saying that people can’t or don’t change, not even when they are literally shaken up.
There are one or two scenes, however, that contradict this sentiment. In my favorite, a character (Lyle Lovett as a baker) sees the result of his actions, and in realizing how profoundly he has affected a part of the larger picture, he gets a chance at redemption. Moments of humanity like this are made more powerful because they are so rare throughout the film.
The question remains as to why Altman made the film- did he see the world in this negative light, or were his intentions purely didactic? Regardless, it feels surprisingly worthwhile to be a voyeur into such realistically depicted lives. As you watch the characters’ inhuman and inane qualities play themselves out, you feel morally sound for a time, and with this clarity you receive all the wake up calls that the characters missed out on.