Short Cuts, Narrative Film and Hypertext

Copyright © 1996 David Balcom. All rights reserved.

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To write about narrative is also to chance writing a narrative…
Lapsley/Westlake

Thoreau or Brer Rabbit, each preferred the bramble.

Michael Joyce

  1. Introduction
  2. Short Cuts
  3. Narrative Film
  4. Short Cuts
  5. Narrative Film
  6. Hypertext
  7. Short Cuts
  8. Hypertext
  9. Short Cuts
  10. Hypertext
  11. Short Cuts
  12. Bibliography

Introduction

In this paper, I wish to examine Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993), narrative film, and hypertext. To begin with, I will discuss Short Cuts (a point of clarification: when I refer to Short Cuts, I mean the film, not the book of short stories by the same name) in general: how narrative functions in the film, how the characters interrelate, what position formal techniques occupy in the film. Then I will discuss narrative film theory. Finally, I will relate the discussion to hypertext and hypervideo. Like the film Short Cuts, this narrative is one of fragments and connections, contingencies and roads not taken.

Short Cuts

Short Cuts does not conform to traditional narrative Hollywood cinema. There is narrative, to be sure, though the manner in which narrative operates moves far and away from classical Hollywood style. A brief detour: by "classic Hollywood style," I refer to a more "traditional" narrative where one character, or maybe a few, are privileged with the most screen time. Questions asked by the text are almost always answered, usually answered "sensibly." The ending usually resolves the story's conflicts. There is usually only one main story, which progresses from beginning to end without serious detour. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the filmmaking style does not draw attention to itself in classic Hollywood cinema. Camera movements, edits, and acting serve to push the story forward to an eventual resolution. The means of production are largely or entirely kept from the viewer.

Narrative Film

Narrative film theory is concerned with how stories get told--how they are constructed for and create a viewing subject by camera movement, lighting, editing, and all the available techniques of filmmaking. Jean Mitry wrote that "A film is a world which organizes itself in terms of a story." [Mitry1984].

While Mitry may be speaking of a Hollywood filmmaking imperative to organize a film AS a story, it also speaks to a viewing subject's desire to consume narrative. After all, narratives are introduced very early in Western lives, and in fact, there is narrative in everything around us: bedtime stories, television, conversation with friends, radio shows, to name a few. While it is perfectly "normal" and "natural" to look for stories, these stories are inevitably constructed BY someone and FOR someone. This is the project of narrative film theory, to reveal the mechanism that so carefully protects the story.

As Lapsley and Westlake say, "…the classic narrative is a historically contingent form, one road out of several that could have been taken." [Lapsley1991].

What stories are told in Short Cuts?

Short Cuts

Few, if none, of these basic tenets of Hollywood filmmaking apply to Short Cuts. While Short Cuts is a narrative film in that specific stories are played out in a linear progression of time, Short Cuts has no single "story," but rather many stories. What stories we do see are shared stories, shared in that themes from one segment (what I'll refer to as mini-sequences) carry over to the next, without the characters' knowledge. I will go into detail with this later in the paper. At over three hours long, with 22 main characters, the amount of information given the viewer is overwhelming on first viewing. No one story, no one character, is privileged over another (in the sense that asking "who's the main character of Short Cuts" is futile, and impossible to answer).

These qualities, then: open-ended, ensemble cast, seemingly-random cuts, no particular story to follow--they are all characteristics that place Short Cuts within the Hollywood Renaissance.

Narrative Film

Lapsley and Westlake, by way of Vladimir Propp, say: "It is arguable, for instance, that the typical film develops not along a single narrative axis, but rather more like an orchestral score, with a number of stories at once separate and interrelated." [Lapsley1991]. Short Cuts is like this, in its singular but plural movement, "intertwingled," as Ted Nelson, the infamous founder of hypertext would say.

David Bordwell discusses narrative film with terms borrowed from the Russian Formalists, as does Peter Brooks. They use the terms "fabula" and "syuzhet" heavily. They require definitions. The fabula, according to Bordwell, is

a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schemata, framing and testing hypotheses. Ideally, the fabula can be embodied in a verbal synopsis, as general or as detailed as circumstances require. [Bordwell1985].

In other words, fabula comprises the cues and perceptions the viewer receives from the film or story. Fabula can change from viewer to viewer if the work is complex. For instance, Short Cuts probably provokes a different fabula for each viewer. Short Cuts defies this question: "What was it about?"

Syuzhet refers to:

The actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It is not the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of the story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the film could render it. The syuzhet is a system because it arranges components--the story events and states of affairs--according to specific principles.

Syuzhet, then, is plot--the arrangement of story for the viewer.

Bordwell discusses the relationship of fabula, syuzhet, and style in narrative film. He defines style as the "systematic use of cinematic devices." Bordwell also discusses three principles relating the syuzhet to the fabula: narrative "logic," time and space. Each of these principles, in narrative film, serve to connect the plot (syuzhet) with the viewer's internal perceptions of the diegetic world he or she is forming (fabula). These viewing perceptions function through the film's form (or style).

It is interesting and telling to apply these concepts of narrative film to Short Cuts. What is the fabula of Short Cuts? What is the syuzhet? Narrative logic, time, and space: the three main ingredients connect fabula and syuzhet, are all problematic in Short Cuts. Of the three, time and space are particularly fractured and disrupted due to the nodal style of filmmaking employed in Short Cuts. Fabula and syuzhet are difficult to conceive in Short Cuts, and indeed, in most of Altman's work.

Kolker says, of Altman: "The narrative structure of Altman's films--from M.A.S.H. through Health--develops out of, or as part of, their spatial structure. The movement from center to periphery demands an abandonment of straightforward narrative development" (Kolker 320). Kolker, in discussing the movement from "center to periphery," is placing Altman in a dialectic with Hollywood cinema and narrative. I would argue that Altman, with Short Cuts, is commenting on exactly that imperative in Hollywood to can and seal meaning. While the film isn't nearly so self-effacing as The Player, any move from center is a self-reflexive move in film. It is first and foremost a film, says Altman. And he is asking the viewer to be complicit as well. As Kolker has noted:

Altman, more than any other American filmmaker, has insisted upon positioning the viewer within the process of narrative, requesting that she or he observe and comprehend the interacting details that cohere in sometimes non-directed ways. But cohere they must on some formal and contextual level, or narrative is impossible. If narrative is possible, then some basic meaning system is created." [Kolker1988].

Kolker is correct in all his assumptions. Altman requires the viewer's participation in the text, and a basic meaning system is at work with Short Cuts. But it is not the system of narrative film.

Traditional modes of narrative film description are not enough to account for Short Cuts' many unique formal characteristics. Instead, another school of thought must be converted/imported to filmic terms.

Hypertext

Ted Nelson, who coined the term `hypertext,' defines it as:

…nonsequential writing--text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways. [Nelson1981].

This is hypertext in form--it's most immediate example is the World Wide Web. What does it have to with Short Cuts? As a computer system, not much. But in theory--that is, in a theoretical understanding of hypertext--Short Cuts and hypertext have much in common. A richly linked, polyvocal text is the stuff of hypertext. It also describes Short Cuts. While the viewer can't make choices like he or she can in a hypertext system (that is to say, the physical media that is Short Cuts doesn't change from viewing to viewing, where in hypertext it can and does--the story need never be the same twice), the viewer can and does engage in making meaning from the text. Short Cuts is a participatory text--it asks the viewer to make connections between characters and themes. Whether the viewer does so or not is up to him.

A description of hypertext also comes close to a description of Short Cuts. In fact, Short Cuts could be said to contain many hypertextual elements.

Short Cuts

Short Cuts flows like a river--it never stops moving. The camera is usually on the move, thought not as much as The Long Goodbye or Nashville. But the flow of Nashville is the closest comparison to be made with Short Cuts. Mini-sequences rarely last more than a few minutes before a cut to another sequence. Most often, several themes and currents run concurrently, and generally without resolution internally (a point must be made prematurely about narrative film: usually scenes, just like the films they comprise, are resolved before they move to another scene). Music overlaps from one mini-sequence to another. Diegetic music sung by Tess Trainer can be heard a few scenes before we see she's singing. This device is a major one used to link sequences together, to present that sensation of a continuous flow. Additionally, each segment ends with a cut--never a dissolve, never a fade to black, never a wipe. Cuts only.

An important component of Short Cuts' formal richness is its linking of themes. The film offers associations between characters, and between mini-sequences, that an active viewer can construct along with the stories they see on the screen. There are subcurrents flowing in the text that link thematic material throughout the film. In fact, most themes are linked in more than one direction (from material that preceded it, and toward material that later recalls it), and to more than one theme. There is a tremendously rich body of associations at work in the film that simple narrative analysis cannot account for.

For example, when Ann Finnigan returns home from her first visit to Mr. Bitkawer, she find the television has been left on. She turns the TV off, then turns to leave the room, when she exhibits a startled reaction. She then notices her son Casey sitting on the couch, after having been hit by a car. This sequence is recalled by a later sequence where Betty Weathers gets out of the shower to find the television on. With her back to the audience (as Ann Finnigan's was, also), she turns the TV off, then turns around. She is startled to find Chad sitting on the floor, eating cake.

The positioning of both women in front of the camera, their gestures as they turn the television off only then find their son, who shouldn't be home, are identical. These scenes are both linked by Gene Sheppard getting rid of the family dog, Suzy, a mini-sequence which also begins with a visual link: Sherri Sheppard frets to Gene that Suzy might get hit by a car. Cut to the mini-sequence where Casey gets hit by a car. Gene's mini-segment abandoning Suzy both anticipates Chad's abandonment by Stormy, and recalls Casey's getting hit by a car (through Sherri's words of warning). A dizzying loop is made when we realize that Stormy left Chad at home to foil Betty's plans to spend her birthday (this on Casey's birthday as well) with Gene.

This sequence also establishes a thematic relationship between the two little boys, Chad and Casey, whose situations are different, but resonate all the same (Howard Finnigan, Casey's father, was abandoned by his father as well). This relationship is recalled when Doreen, the one who hit Casey (but thought he was "all right," as everyone, including Casey himself, said he would be), takes Chad to the bathroom (while Gene and Sherri are cuddling in a booth). Chad could be Casey and Casey could be Chad. Here a major theme if Short Cuts is revealed: The "What if…?" decisions that are made every day, the decisions that have put the characters in Short Cuts together, the decisions that inexorably cause them to run through each other's lives.

Short Cuts is a participatory text, one in which an active viewer can activate subcurrents present in the movie, put them together and receive a far richer text than simply letting the movie run its course. Kolker says that Altman has the "capability of opening the image to active participation on the part of the viewer." [Kolker1988]. Like the undercurrents that pull at the dead body in the river, both thematically and literally, Short Cuts moves in many directions. The stories told in Short Cuts (and told by Raymond Carver before) never end--they simply continue to play out, loop back on one another, inform what comes before and what comes after. They move like life does: in slow waves that never end.

Narrative information is offered by not always followed up on. The viewer is left to make the connections. A classic Hollywood film would do X, and only and always X. Short Cuts uses a different alphabet to signify. There is no X in Short Cuts' vocabulary. In this way the film resists a narrative account of its activities.

Hypertext

Michael Joyce's hypertext fiction afternoon, a story contains several hundred "nodes," or screens the reader can encounter, even and more "links," that connect nodes together. The linking structure is such that several links can lead to one particular node. In any one node, there are as many as 5 or 6 links to other destinations. Such a complex organization of links and nodes provide a fruitful interaction for the exploring reader; an active reader is rewarded more than a passive one, in that his or her interactions with the text are likely to take him to more interesting places than simply hitting the return key over and over (which leads to a default path that more than likely, loops). In Joyce's directions to afternoon, he says:

In my mind the story, as it has formed, takes on margins. Each margin will yield to the impatient, or wary, reader. You can answer yes at the beginning and page through on a wave of Returns, or page through directly--again using Returns-- without that first interaction.

These are not versions, but the story itself in long lines. Otherwise, however, the center is all--Thoreau or Brer Rabbit, each preferred the bramble. I've discovered more there too, and the real interaction, if that is possible, is in pursuit of texture. [Joyce1991].

Joyce's instructions for afternoon could also preface Short Cuts as well, its many arrivals from, and departures to, associated sequences (nodes and links). While the Short Cuts viewer doesn't click with the mouse and alter the flow of the stories, as he does in afternoon, he still chooses connections to follow and play out in his mind.

J. Yellowlees Douglas, in charting the "narrative of possibilities" of afternoon to determine how the act of reading functions in hypertext, describes the experience of visiting the same space four times and not realizing the words were the same, that only the context had changed [Douglas1991]. Douglas' experience echoes an early film by V.I. Pudovkin's. He showed film images to the audience of a face observing an image, then a cut back to the face. The images Pudovkin showed were a plate of soup standing on a table, a coffin with a dead woman laying in it, and a little girl playing with a toy bear. The image was displayed on the screen, then a cut to a face, which remained motionless. However, viewers ascribed meaning and reaction to the motionless face, even thought in all cases the face hadn't changed, only the context had.

Douglas' experience with afternoon, where the spaces she visited were exactly the same, but the context surrounding them had changed, is similar to Pudovkin's experiment in that in each case the viewer or reader ascribed meaning to the text that was produced by their interaction with the text.

A viewer's experience with Short Cuts is similar: if a viewer picks up Short Cuts' rich subcurrents and moves with them throughout the film, context slips into a play of subcurrent and association. Ralph's hideous balloon laughter near the end of the film is packed with meaning when set against Marian's paintings, and Sherri's hysterical laughter at Gene's lies, which cuts to one of Marian's paintings of a laughing face. These associations are never commented upon, only shown and left to trail away. The viewer is responsible for making the connections. As Marian says of her own paintings: "I think they're about seeing and the responsibility that goes with it." Altman is saying the same thing to the viewer.

Hypertext theory offers to Short Cuts another item that narrative film theory cannot: a way to see the stories. Hypertext provides a way to visualize narrative. Where a film plays out in time, hypertext can draw it out in space, revealing the connections in the text. While the notion of "story" itself asks to be read in narrative terms, hypertext deconstructs this notion and explodes it, giving rise to multiple authors, readers becoming writers / creators of the text.

As Jay David Bolter says of hypertext:

The electronic medium … threatens to bring down the whole edifice at once. It complicates our understanding of literature as either mimesis or expression, it denies the fixity of the text, and it questions the authority of the author. [Bolter1991].

While Bolter is speaking of text, his statement holds true for film as well. In a sense, Altman has done just this with Short Cuts. With its refusal to partake in classic Hollywood narrative, and his insistence in giving so much choice to the audience in making connections in Short Cuts, Altman has in fact made a hypertext: a rich body of links, a network of meaning that comments on narrative form by simply offering an alternative to narrative form. The "what if…?" question is not only present in the text of Short Cuts, but is embedded deep within its form as well. Instead of traveling the tired terrain of narrative, Altman made a choice to offer a participatory text.

Short Cuts

There are many recurring themes in the film, two of which have been stated: abandonment and realizing that "what if…?" controls lives. Additionally, there is a dead body in the water: three fishermen find a woman's body in a river. They decided not to report the body until they have caught their limit of fish three days later. While the "what if…?" (Should they report the body or not? Does it matter? What if they do? What if they don't?) is certainly at work here, there are several other themes at work, but in story(ies) and in form. A link is set up between the dead girl and Honey's beat-up makeup job by her pervert husband, Bill. The objectified female body is consumed for the pleasure of the viewing male. Both take pictures of their catch. These sequences are also connected to Marian's art: "What does it have to be nude to be art," her husband Ralph asks. Formally these scenes are connected by edits and happenstance (Honey and Gordon accidentally switch pictures, and in a funny moment, each writes down the other's license number). Short Cuts doesn't offer any answers, but only continues to ask questions of the body / in / this / body of work.

These thematic associations are the "real" story Short Cuts has to tell: while no narrative sequences are concluded, no ends tied, the story simply continues. Decisions are made, and people either live or die. The film tells us that both events can, and do, happen, and not for any particular reason. It just happens, and it's all the same: he lives, he dies.

Thematically, there is much more to say about Short Cuts. Bodies in the water, children left by their parents, voyeurism, spousal unfaithfulness, domestic horror (but ordinary domestic horror, not the stuff Hollywood dramas are based on, unless treated melodramatically). A random, unexpected death binds many of these themes together. But still this does not say nearly enough about Short Cuts as a film. There is so much more.

Taken apart, the stories are relatively insignificant, and mean nothing. It is only in the play of one scene with another, then another, that the scenes take on meaning and power. It is this play of difference that makes Short Cuts so rich. It echoes the act of signification, where meaning is not essential in and of itself but realized only in relation and opposition to another.

Hypertext

Just as emerging writers find hypertext useful to brainstorm and visualize connections between material, Short Cuts' structure would be served well by a hypertext treatment--this would allow critics to tease out its links, and to perhaps realize new links in the process. An interesting project would have a class determining new choices for Short Cuts' characters. For instance, what if Stuart, Gordon and Verne had fished the woman's body from the river on Day One. One can speculate that Claire wouldn't have driven to Bakersfield for her funeral; nor would Stuart and Claire been antagonistic at Ralph and Marion's house. Honey and Gordon would never have run into one another, and that story would have been averted. But what new stories could be written in their place? This notion engages what Henry Jenkins calls "textual poaching," or recuperating alternate narrative possibilities for creative or political ends (of course I think Short Cuts is fine as it is--to improve on Raymond Carver and Robert Altman is futile, in this author's opinion).

An experimental hypermedia system would afford just such an opportunity. Elsewhere I've argued that a combination of hypertext and digital video--what I call "hypervideo"--can be a powerful tool for visualizing and deconstructing narrative film. Hypervideo can be defined as:

…digital video and hypertext, offering to its user and author the richness of multiple narratives, even multiple means of structuring narrative (or non-narrative), combining digital video with a polyvocal, linked text [Balcom1996].

While hypervideo is primarily a medium by which artists can create nonlinear, participatory videotexts, there exists within its bounds the power to literally take apart narrative film, to wind it back on itself and show its "constructedness," as I've argued hypertext can do. As hypertext offers a way out of linearity for writers, so too does hypervideo offer a break from classical narrative, even from avante-garde narrative, which is also occasionally linear.

Creating a hypervideo version of Short Cuts would do several things: 1) it would be really cool (let us not discount the "coolness" factor of interactive media); 2) it would make clear the rich body of connections found in the work; 3) it would allow the audience to re-view Short Cuts on its own terms, to make choices where to go, what to see--to realize the "what if-ness" that Short Cuts evokes but finally, cannot make good on.

This re-viewing captures an essential notion of hypervideo (and, by extension, hypertext): to recover connections within a body of work. This re-covery looks both forward to what lies ahead, and backward, to what has been. In Short Cuts there is a sense that if we don't look, that the stories will go on without us. Like Stuart Moulthrop's hypertext fiction, Victory Garden (by way of Michael Joyce), there is a sense of urgency that we must do something, or else all is lost. The body floating in the river, the body to be consumed, photographed, revealed: the body is / this / work, a mirror of the viewing subject, partially clad / pre-determined to give way to narrative, instead of the "narrative of possibilities" that hypertext begs us to engage.

Short Cuts

Finally, Short Cuts, the world, is too big to talk about. Too open, too full. Rife with association, movement, meeting upon meeting between the ensemble cast, all sharing lives and themes and even words. Take a map, zoom in on it, dissect, and Short Cuts is what you get. Seemingly random but finally not. At the same time, it is about all the associations that we miss in life, one aisle in the grocery store away from our next employer or our next lover, things we'll never know, choices we'll never make. When we watch Short Cuts we are pure voyeur, connecting all the lives, characters who are unaware of those very connections which bind them (for us).

A slapstick comedy might employ the same devices: characters crossing each other's paths where the audience knows how packed the scenes are with meaning and hopeful connection, connection which is eventually realized and played out, usually in the last scene. In Short Cuts that last scene never takes place. There is never a moment of, "oh you're X, I saw you in the store." It's not part of the story, but of course it is the story. Take a map, spread it out …

But it's more than this--it's all the missed connections as well, all the turns that never cause X, Y and Z to happen, but rather F, G and H instead. Short Cuts is about the space in between these decisions, the "What if…?" moments that mold and form the characters' lives. Kolker says, "He creates--or more appropriately, allows the viewer to create--an idea of place out of visual and aural fragments and suggestions." [Kolker1988]. The viewer is left to make the connections.

Bibliography

[Bolter1991] Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

[Bordwell1985] Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

[Brooks1984] Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

[Douglas1991] Douglas, J. Yellowlees. "Understanding the Act of Reading: the WOE Beginners' Guide to Dissection.," Writing on the Edge, 2.2. University of California at Davis, Spring 1991, pp. 112-125.

[Kolker 1988] Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness. Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[Joyce1991] Joyce, Michael. afternoon, a story. Computer disk. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Eastgate Press. 1991.

[Lapsley1991] Lapsley, Robert and Michael Westlake. Film Theory: An Introduction. New York: Manchester University Press, 1991.

[Mitry1984] Mitry, Jean. Esthetique II, quoted in Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

[Nelson1981] Nelson, Theodor H. Literary Machines. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: self-published, 1981.


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