Robert Altman: Short Cuts Essay, Research Paper
CLOSE ANALYSIS OF ? SHORT CUTS?
By Valerie Dominguez
The purpose of the initial scene, while the credits are still rolling, is to introduce us to the abundance of characters, situations and interpersonal relations that take place in an urban setting and to see life beyond the control that its characters have upon it.
It observes the inevitable and unpredictable changes in relationships, their evolution and the interactions between the different couples that sometimes enrich but mostly threaten their fragile stability.
Altman?s camera can be perceived as an exploratory eye that inquires into the daily chaos while attempting to make it comprehensible to the viewer.
I chose the first five minutes because that scene is, in my opinion, the most representative of the spirit of the film and introduces the numerous characters which are positioned in daily situations such as the theatre, various homes, a coffee shop, a limousine and a jazz club. Short Cuts is very similar to his 1975 project ?Nashville? in that they both consist of stories that overlap and are both mainly linked together by having the characters from the different stories interact. He also uses recurrent shots which unify the actions that take place to give the impression that they are all happening at the same time and place.
It?s on this initial setting that he elaborates the rest of the film, becoming an ?eye? that observes the evolution in the life of the characters he introduced and through which he will develop the conflicts and interests that life presents.
In an interview with Connie Byrne and William O. Lopez he refers to how he is sometimes perceived as not very expressive about his work and that when he tries to talk about what his films are about he sounds silly.
This is seen precisely in the selected sequence which reflects the fact that Altman wants to portray life as it is and establish numerous situations that develop by themselves as if the argument of the scene originated from a natural evolution rather than from a previously established plot.
I consider the first five minutes to be a general sequence that presents a situation and all the main characters. I divide this sequence into various partial sequences that are the ones relative to each principal character and the intertwined aerial shots that give the entire sequence a ?space? context and a narrative evolution.
I will analyze in detail how shots and sequences are intertwined during the first two minutes to then extract the general notes of Altman?s vision that can be seen in the five minute sequence.
FRAME : Establishing shot
MOVEMENT: Panoramic to the right -à close-up of the traffic signà Panoramic to the left-à Establishing shot of city at night
The film starts with a general shot of the city from far away and at night, it?s almost an abstract composition. The movement of the camera shows us the traffic sign and with the Panoramics (pan) to the right and left almost works as a human gaze, it then goes back to a general shot of the city at night.
The focal length doesn?t change at any point and gives the spectator a very natural sensation as if we were just looking around us. The change between the long and short shots isn?t done using a zoom, the director takes advantage of the actual closeness to the object to enhance it in the short cut.
The produced sensation is clearly descriptive. When the camera gets to the Quarantine warning sign I perceive an overlapped sound of motors and the sign starts to shake. R.Altman is advancing the upcoming presence of the helicopters that are then illuminated. This is followed by a general establishing shot of the helicopters. This overlap of sound and image is used as a narrative element which gives the sequence continuity.
FRAME: Static establishing shot with a static low-angle view of the passing helicopters
MOVEMENT: No camera movement-à high-angle view from helicopter of a limousine on highways (aerial travelling ) -à succession of medium shots in the interior of limousine with descriptive effect and hand-held camera.
The succesion of sequences in the studied five minutes are:
Sequence 1: L.A at night and sign
Sequence 2: Helicopters
Sequence 3: Limousine
Sequence 4: Helicopters
Sequence 5: Home scene of Anchor and wife
Sequence 6: Helicopters
Sequence 7: Man walks into house with wife and children
Sequence 8: Helicopters
Sequence 9: Coffee shop with arriving limousine
Sequence 10: Helicopters
Sequence 11: Jazz club
Sequence 12: Helicopters
Sequence 13: Policeman and family quarrelling
Sequence 14: Helicopters
Sequence 15 would be a scene in the theatre only it isn?t included because it is no longer part of the introduction of the main characters and locations, it is the beginning of the exploration of the character?s lives and personalities.
On a more common note, I will now proceed to write about the general technicalities of the whole scene.
The camera is used as an impartial observer . The Panoramic (pan) movements of the camera are utilized to cover the actions of the characters and show us parallel actions that happen simultaneously. There is a moderate use of the zoom that brings us to the objects of attention but without actually involving us excessively, a balance which concords with Altman? s habit of observing and understanding without passing judgement.
An example of this would be the general shot of the home of the Anchor which directs us towards an intimate location yet without being intrusive, always at a distance with the aim of objectivity.
The general shots, especially the aerial ones situate us geographically and are always followed by short shots that gradually introduce us into the different scenarios where the drama will ensue throughout the film. The images with the helicopters have a very specific purpose, they geographically unify the neighborhoods Altman is filming which are all in L.A and close to each other. The periodic shots of the Television screens in the different homes in which one always sees the same anchor unify the accions with respect to time, all the actions are happening simultaneously. The lighting is naturalistic, the director places the actors while creating a very captivating effect of the lighting on the helicopters which serves to capture the attention of the audience at the beginning of the film. The common use of long and medium shots with very few close-ups joint with the use of a wide angle lens (probably 35-50mm) gives the spectator the impression of being a mere witness or bystander in the scenes that are presented to us. Certain camera movements such as ?travelling? are more prevalent and pronounced in the aerial shots and give us the impression of taking us from one part of the town to the other; they contrast with the more restricted panoramic (pan) movements when we are in front of actors and which give us the sensation that these actions are happening right in front of us. Altman doesn?t want to impose his judgement of the situation, he wants the scenes to speak for themselves. There is a continued use of overlapped sound that sensorially mixes each situation with musical themes that help transmit a dynamic sensation to the public and a certain excitement about the enigma of future happenings in the lives of the eccentric and intriguing characters that were recently introduced into our mind and emotional psyche.
Robert Altman Interviews by David Sterritt