I am presently reading BEGINNERS (2009) by Raymond Carver. It is a reissue of his collection of short stories WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE (1981) which have been incredibly influential on writing ever since its publication. Stories from the collection inspired Altman’s SHORT CUTS, and it is one of my absolute favourite films.
The new version of the collection is fascinating because it is the original, unedited manuscripts that Carver produced, the ‘Director’s Cut’, prior to the intervention of his editor Gordon Lish who stripped the word count by about 40%. Comparing the two versions is startling because, the laconic, clipped, ‘Carveresque’ style is the product of the editing rather than the author. The careful use of words is still there, but these are fuller, more rambling versions of the stories with endings changed and titles altered.
What is clear from Carver’s originals is the importance of character and strong incident that is the strength of all of his work and what inspired Altman as a film-maker: the baker who terrorises a mother for not collecting a cake for her son, not realising that he is in hospital due to a car accident; the men who don’t allow the discovery of a dead body disrupt their fishing trip; the nieghbours who take liberties in a house that they have been asked to look after and many others are weaved together in a patch-work of stories that intercept and entwine to make the film.
On the face of it, it is like a TV drama, and its influence on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES is very apparent watching it now. It is the performances from the cast of twenty plus actors that raise it above the mundane soap. The actors and actresses read like a virtual who’s who of early 90s cinema: Chris Penn, Anne Archer, Tim Robbins, Matthew Modine and Madeleine Stowe, to name a few. There are exceptional performances from Tom Waites as a bar-fly and Jack Lemmon as an estranged father trying to connect with his middle-aged son.
The most notable and best written scenes are from women. Andie MacDowell gives a surprisingly, convincing performance as a grieving mother coming to terms with the death of her son, her hard-face breaking into an emotionally moving scene. Jennifer Jason Liegh has some toe-curling scenes as a mother trying to care for her family as she is providing phone-sex chat, using verbatim lines that she observed when studying for the role; and Julianne Moore gives a disarmingly frank speech whilst being naked from the waist down.
The ensemble films that it has inspired such as MAGNOLIA (1999) and CRASH (2004) really do not match its brilliance, because, at its heart is the genius of Carver.