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MOVIES : A Short Cut Through the Dark Side : Yes, Raymond Carver and Robert Altman both have chronicled the lives of everyday people. And now, the collaboration

September 26, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

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."

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