Real Time Short Stories

Reel Time Short Stories: Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” / Altman’s “Short Cuts”

Posted on: October 7, 2011

It’s a short story blog. We were going to get here at some point. And after this we’ll move on some place else. But this will be there wherever we go. That man will be there. The one with the cigarette covering his face.

There is no steering around Raymond Carver. A collision with his short fiction will have a lasting impact and, if you write short stories, your relationship with the form will share at least a postcode with your relationship with Carver. Whether the “brevity and intensity” (his description of his own writing inclinations) of Carver’s stories have acted like stabilisers on the child’s bicycle of your own fiction or you make a dash towards rococo palaces of the imagination whenever faced with one of his realist portraits of quiet, incremental disappointment, he is a major short fiction landmark. Consequently, I can approach one of his stories, A Small Good Thing, knowing any other one would do perfectly well as a primer to that cold-pressed technique. On the other hand, with this particular theme of short fiction and cinema, Carver’s significance works against easy choices: which of the Carver stories spliced together by Robert Altman for his 1993 portmanteau, Short Cuts, deserves special attention?
Altman was a cinematic figure every bit as singular and towering among directors as Carver was to short fiction writers. From a classic Hollywood generation, he was a senior figure among the group of US independent writers and directors who channelled the personal approach and styles of the French nouvelle vague. Altman’s films in the 1970s most embodied that bridge between naturalistic European sensibilities and the new counterculture-influenced Hollywood and, after the routine fallow period of the 1980s (Popeye being his own take on the Stevie Wonder I Just Called To Say I Love You parable about the creative drain that was the Reagan/Thatcher era), his 1992 ensemble piece, The Player, reaffirmed his artistry and renewed his relevance. When he mobilised a large, impressive and eclectic cast to bring a cluster of Carver’s stories to the screen, it was an intoxicating opportunity to catch two great American storytellers of the ordinary and everyday, working in harmony.

Looking back on what was undoubtedly a cultural highlight at the time – and fulfilling viewing for a writer whose short story universe was then almost entirely Carver-shaped – I wonder what time and a deeper grounding in the form will reveal about how one of the key stories fared in adaptation. A Small Good Thing is pivotal to the way the film works, providing the one element of truly high drama (other than the resolution of the Lori Singer/Annie Ross strand, written for the screen by Altman’s collaborator, Frank Barhydt, to link the Carver pieces, and not a direct adaptation) in over three hours of slow-moving, finely-tuned character study. The movie’s length – I remember it being presented with an intermission on its cinema release – wasn’t wholly out of keeping with current trends in film drama; two hour running times were routinely exceeded and that year’s Oscar went to Schindler’s List, a film even longer than Short Cuts. However, it would seem to act against the “brevity” part of Carver’s watchword. Then again, A Small Good Thing is on the long side for a Carver story and its very pronounced three-act structure means it can more readily be stretched as opposed to sketched.

She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child’s party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he’d ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker’s age-a man old enough to be her father-must have children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her-not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-western music.

The baker finished printing the information on the special order card and closed up the binder. He looked at her and said, “Monday morning.” She thanked him and drove home.

The early attempts by Ann Weiss to engage with the taciturn baker, to have some of her excitement about her son’s birthday reflected back to her and simply for her to be liked in any given situation, are important signals to the reader within the opening scene of the story. The baker matters. His grim trudge through the labour of meeting Ann’s requirements for her son Scotty’s cake, and the cake itself, are to play a part. Contrast this with the depiction of the driver who, later, hits Scotty with his car:

The car had gone a hundred feet or so and stopped in the middle of the road. The man in the driver’s seat looked back over his shoulder. He waited until the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little. He looked dazed, but okay. The driver put the car into gear and drove away.

It’s horrific in its casual nature but the hit-and-run on the driver’s part is mirrored by Carver’s own treatment of the incident. We do not meet the driver again, yet his actions trigger everything else that happens in the story. Even though an extremely delayed shock to Scotty’s system will put him in hospital in an unconscious state, it’s the randomness of the collision, not the collision itself, that matters to the story. The film is obliged to deal with this essential dynamic in a different way. Other than a brief scene early on to establish Andie MacDowell’s Ann, and Bruce Davison as her husband, Howard, the first moment Altman shows from A Small Good Thing is the car hitting the boy, who is now named Casey. The brutal blank space that was Carver’s driver is now Lily Tomlin’s downtrodden waitress, Doreen. Each of the stories used for the film are adapted so that the plots and characters overlap; Doreen appears in They’re Not Your Husband, in which she has enough to worry about with her sullen, controlling husband (Tom Waits in the film) without also nearly running over an 8-year-old boy.

Jack Lemmon as Paul; Andie MacDowell as Ann; Bruce Davison as Howard

The scene in the bakery, with which Carver begins the story, takes place in the film immediately after we’ve seen Tomlin hit Casey, and have her offer to take him home refused. Although we’re yet to absorb the full tragic implications of the accident, it’s a more heavy-handed use of dramatic irony as Ann and the baker discuss the cake. The terse exchange of the story is missing but a lot of this is necessary compression: we don’t need to be told the baker is going to feature again in the story – he’s Lyle Lovett and they’re not going to employ him just to tell someone that the cake will be ready by tomorrow.

The overlap between stories – when Casey ends up in hospital, Howard’s estranged father, played by Jack Lemmon, makes an appearance, while the compassionate veteran doctor from the story is turned into Matthew Modine’s younger and breezier Ralph, both characters drafted in from other Carver texts – is a game Altman regularly played with narrative and it’s also his comment on Carver’s stories.

Altman’s view of Carver’s stories is that they work as individual parts of one mosaic. He’s right but it’s also true that each fragment within this mosaic is a beautifully constructed piece with its own coherence and unity. A Small Good Thing is extraordinary in that it takes a scenario worthy of Greek tragedy, almost horror, and resolves it within the context of life going on and humans finding a way to cope.

The boy looked at them, but without any sign of recognition. Then his mouth opened, his eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.

Scotty’s death provides unbearable reading, that howl very much the stuff of horror, whereas Ann’s transmutation of this grief into rage at the baker, who has been making abusive phonecalls about the uncollected cake, could be that of Althaea, throwing the logs onto the fire that will end the lives of her brothers who killed her son.

Altman does justice to the sudden, shocking nature of the boy’s death and, in perhaps the one moment in her acting career when you could use “powerful” about her performance, Andie MacDowell’s confrontation with Lovett is every bit as powerful as in the text. Yet, by continuing to whisk this storyline up with the rest and by wrapping up the denouement of each narrative within a suitably random but nonetheless jarring LA earthquake, the stunningly human ending to A Small Good Thing falls away, the intensity going the same way as the brevity. With time to counsel us, we might wonder whether the meandering, multi-star vehicles Altman began piloting with The Player and this, might not have been indicative of an increasingly frothy and superficial sensibility, to contrast with the robust likes of Nashville or M*A*S*H.

Perhaps the match with Carver was not quite so perfect. It’s brilliant, at times, when Altman and actors as compelling as Lemmon, Tomlin, Waits, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins or Jennifer Jason Leigh manage to capture Carver’s way with suppressed emotion and unspoken anguish. And Altman used cinema to question cinematic storytelling so he was entitled to move beyond strict adaptation, even with a writer as fiercely cherished as Carver. It could be that a more jobbing, less distinctive film-maker might have presented the stories in more discrete, episodic segments and brought out more of the strengths of the writing. It’s difficult to think of a director of comparable stature who would have taken a more faithful approach to the stories – thinking about Terrence Malick’s ephemeral string of episodic memories in Tree Of Life or Woody Allen’s Woody-isation of Philip Roth in Deconstructing Harry – so Short Cuts remains a definitive moment in our appreciation of the cinematic incursions by the short story cabal.

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