I've been trying and trying, but I can't pretend that Short Cuts doesn't exist. The reason that I bring this up is Jindabyne, third film in 21 years by director Ray Lawrence (of Bliss, which I haven't seen, and Lantana, which I haven't seen either), which is adapted from "So Much Water So Close to Home," a Raymond Carver story also featured in that Altman epic.
The essential plot is thus: four men go on a fishing trip, miles from nowhere, and find the dead body of a young woman. Their immediate response is to keep on fishing, and inform the police after they cut the trip short a day.
Upon their return, Stuart Kane (here Stewart, played by Gabriel Byrne) finds that his wife Claire (Laura Linney) is entirely appalled by what he and his friends have done, and as she grows obsessed with properly mourning the dead girl, their fragile marriage starts to crumble.
In all three stories, the central conflict is over Stuart's inability to explain to Claire why they ignored the girl for nearly two full days. The simple answer is that the sky was blue, the fish were biting, it was a long way to the car, and she wasn't going to get any deader; and being in the presence of a young dead person made the men want appreciate life all that much more. Which has actually always seemed pretty understandable to me, if unbelievably rude.
The true reason is the heart of the story, and it's different in each version. For Carver, the cynic, they did it because sometimes people can do stupid, terrible things without really thinking about why, especially if they're working class males for whom introspection has never been presented as an admirable quality. For Altman, the misanthrope, it's because people usually do stupid, terrible things. For Lawrence and his screenwriter Beatrix Christian, it's because of a lot of things that get very talky and overthought, but involve racism, misogyny and colonialism.
Jindabyne has reset the story in Australia, you see, and made the woman an Aborigine, and while neither of these is inherently a bad choice, neither is there a reason to make them. What makes Carver the author that he is, is brevity. Drop you in the story - POW something happens - story's over. Altman had the good sense to add nothing in the way of frills or dross to what he memorably referred to as jazz variations on Carver's stories. He wasn't always perfectly true to the stories - sometimes, his versions were barely even similar - but he understood the POW of Carver's writing and he turned it into cinema.
It's not fair at all to attack Jindabyne for extending a short story, because that's done all the time, and I feel very guilty about doing it. But I can't lie about what I felt from the movie, and what I felt was that a whole lot of padding turns a fine enough story into a dour, wordy slog. Not that the wordy slog doesn't have value in and of itself, but still: I can't pretend Short Cuts doesn't exist.
The chief liability of Jindabyne's padding, which ranges from the well-observed addition of Claire's antagonistic mother-in-law to the incredibly leaden and obvious metaphor of the old town of Jindabyne, which now lies under a dam reservoir and thus gets to be the source of bitterly unimaginative symbolism about secrets coming to the surface, to the Bizarro World subplot about Claire and Stewart's seven-year-old son Tom, and his friendship with the needlessly creepy seven-year-old goth girl Caylin-Calandria...run-on sentences will kill you, man. The chief liability of Jindabyne's padding is that unlike the story, or the earlier film, it doesn't just show, it shows and tells, and tells some more. By which I mean: neither Carver nor Altman want to give you answers about morality, but Ray Lawrence wants to give you many, most of which turn into eminently predictable guilty male liberal hand-wringing.
Given that this is an Australian film it should not surprise that it is very given to mystic philosophizing about the relationship between humans and the land, and to give credit where credit is due, Lawrence and cinematographer David Williamson hit all the right notes in their landscape photography. Not even a week since I was bitching about the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and here it is being done damn well; especially in the somewhat common recurrence of shots where a lone human occupies a small corner of a great big frame. We have pretty vistas that are also thematically meaningful, and that's no small achievement.
So the mystic philosophizing about the relationship between humans and the land, that works right? Yes. Except it's fucking boring.
"Boring" is an awful word to use - a bit better than "cheesy" and marginally worse than "stupid." But when I, who sings the praises of Bergman at every turn, who regards L'avventura as one of the twenty greatest films of all time, who has said of the six-hour The Best of Youth that I wanted it to be longer; when I of all people find myself restless for the end to come, less than halfway through a film's running time, that is when we dispense with ten-cent words like "pacing" and "elliptical," and cut right to the chase, and we say that Jindabyne is Fucking. Boring.
The only reason for the film at all is two powerhouse central performances, by Linney and Byrne. The film isn't a character piece, the characters being incredibly inconsistent as written (another victim of the adaptation: in the short story, we simply don't have time to notice how unrealistic these people are), but the two leads seemingly ignore that and act as though these were the most sensitively-drawn roles in the history of the cinema. Linney in particular is brilliant, giving what may very well be her career-best performance, bringing to her character a sense of outrage so deep and true that I very nearly found the energy to care about the flat moral investigation going on around and through her.
Still, not enough to salvage a bloated wreck. I don't hate it - I don't feel anything towards it. It's a big 'ol novel on film, packed full of weighty themes and thoughts, and we all know that I have essentially no patience for films that would work just as well as novels. It misses the spirit of Carver's original by a mile, literalizing the implicit and making the characters behave in arbitrary, predetermined ways.
But then I look at the massively positive critical reception everywhere else, and I just assume that I must have missed something vital. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just that I can't pretend that Short Cuts doesn't exist.