Our attention spans have been assaulted and beaten into submission. As a species, we have become quite good at perceiving precise details in short bursts while at the same time losing the ability to concentrate for long periods. We can’t blame this on the millennials (sorry, Fox News!) because, from early MTV video editing to YouTube and the rise of Snapchat-Instagram-Facebook Live Stories, this has been a long time coming. If there is a silver lining to this, it would be that we may be living in the perfect era to appreciate the full artistic possibilities of the anthology format in all our media, especially in its cinematic equivalent: the anthology film.
The Basics of Anthology Film
The words “anthology” or “omnibus” usually refer to any related content grouped in a large edition, such as a CD box-set or a short story collection. Thanks to TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales from the Crypt, these terms were applied to any movie, program or book that told short stories tied by a common theme (like “spooky stories with twist endings”) instead of focusing on a large, overarching narrative.
Anthologies are actually a very old storytelling device used in lots of famous films. The Academy-Award winning Grand Hotel, which birthed Greta Garbo’s signature catchphrase (“I want to be alone!”), is an early anthology film example featuring separate stories tied by a common thread, in this case a hotel. Director Quentin Tarantino practically made his career with the anthology format, both alone (Pulp Fiction) and with friends (Four Rooms, Grindhouse, Sin City). Romantic movies structured as anthologies include the Cities of Love series (Paris, je t’aime; New York, I Love You). There are also comedy anthologies such Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. The format is very popular with horror directors looking to make a splash. Creepshow, Cat’s Eye, V/H/S, Southbound and Holidays are well-known horror anthologies.
Not to Be Confused with…
There is a similar format to the anthology film called hyperlink cinema. It also encompasses many stories, but differs in that they usually converge at some point and form a singular tale. Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola Run), the early work of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and the wondrously ambitious Cloud Atlas are textbook hyperlink examples. Anthology and hyperlink are generally considered different styles even though, arguably, both types of films can overlap. Pulp Fiction and Love Actually, for instance, are generally classified as hyperlink films, but structurally their tales are designed to work independently despite their shared characters, which to me makes them more like an omnibus.
Ups and Downs
In cinema, the anthology film format is like having a reset button in the middle of your movie. Filmmakers have the freedom within this framework to try different things without being tied to continuity. It allows many different directors to work together while exercising their specific aesthetic. For moviegoers it’s like they’re getting lots of films in one, like one surprise superhero movie post-credit sequence after another. Critic Roger Ebert coins a fitting analogy for anthologies in his review of New York, I Love You: “Inevitably, the film is a jumble sale, but you can make some nice discoveries”.
It’s not without its downsides, of course. Just because you stories are somewhat independent doesn’t mean they don’t affect each other. People are seeing one movie after all, not five, so the whole anthology film is only as strong as its weakest short. Also, like a well-produced concept album, the order of its individual components affect the general flow, which affects what the audience experiences.
Dos and Don’ts
As a sole filmmaker or part of a group, you should strive to structure your different narratives like a classic three-act play. You want an omnibus movie to start strong, alternate between good and not-as-good in the middle, then finish with a bang. This turns out to be a hard enterprise, especially with many cooks stirring the pot, but it is possible. The best anthology films are usually the ones with only one director or a very clear premise tying everything together.
As a film-goer, you can easily train your brain to enjoy an anthology film. The trick is to focus on each short segment instead of the whole thing (our aforementioned short-attention spans come in handy for this task). That way you can choose the story you like the best and stick with it, like tasting each bite-size candy you collect while trick-or-treating and picking the Mini Reese’s over the licorice (your tastes may vary).
To Learn More
Here are a few personal recommendations if you wish to board the cinematic omnibus. They aren’t all great anthologies, but they have much to teach about their format (and at least one thing going for them [mostly]):
Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)
A 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, this gem could be classified as satire if it weren’t so wickedly hilarious throughout. Damian Szifrón’s flick showcases high production values and sharp, dark wit in its critique of regular life in the urban centers of Argentina.
Its separate stories all take everyday situations (a wedding, a wrongfully towed car, a plane trip, a road rage encounter) to their logical extremes. The seemingly regular people who endure these situations basically lose their patience and enter FTW mode (its title in France is Les nouveaux sauvages or “The New Savages”). Since all its segments are top notch, this one serves as a good example of a consistent anthology film.
Available on iTunes.
Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I Love You)
The first and best of the Cities of Love series, its main strength is the length of its 18 segments (all named after different arrondissements or districts in the French capital). Clocking in at an average of six-and-a-half minutes per short, they never get tiresome regardless of their quality: Make no mistake, though: it overflows with talent on and off screen.
Helmers Olivier Assayas, the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuarón and Tom Tykwer direct an all-star cast featuring Natalie Portman, Steve Buscemi, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Willem Dafoe, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu, Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell and Elijah Wood. Never a bore, even if you hate romances, and far more effective than its Big Apple sequel (which, regardless, is also good). The segment with Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) haunts me to this day.
Available on Amazon Video.
About the best you can expect from a horror anthology. Most of the creative team behind the V/H/S series reteam with a stronger premise (#SpoilerNonSpoiler: Everybody’s on the road to Hell), better cinematography and that classic anthology trope of the omniscient narrator. Instead of Rod Serling or a decomposed corpse with bad puns, we get the disembodied voice of a radio D.J. (Larry Fessenden).
Although there is gore, all segments depend more on a creeping sense of dread and hopelessness they all share, even when they’re being funny. The story flow is well balanced and even the transitions between segments pay off at the end. Even “Jailbreak”, the weaker of the five stories, is worth seeing.
Available on iTunes.
What can you say about Quentin Tarantino’s epic second film that hasn’t been said before? To start, it established his trademark look, feel and rapid-fire dialogue style, introduced in Reservoir Dogs. It also showcased his extensive knowledge of pop culture references both known and obscure. (The legend states that Tarantino honed his sensibilities as a video store clerk.)
What makes it different from his other films, all of which are a must see, is that it stories work independently. The segments work more like chapters in his other films like Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds and both Kill Bill volumes, each short advancing through a bigger story. Whereas in Pulp Fiction you can, pardon the pun, watch the “Watch” segment without having seen the previous ones and it’ll still get you, even though some of its seedy characters bleed into the other tales. Shocking, brilliant, funny and still relevant after more than 20 years.
Twilight Zone: The Movie
This adaptation of Serling’s pioneer anthology series is a mixed bag. This seems to be the typical result of doing an anthology film, given its structure. It’s premise is attractive enough – hot young filmmakers recreate and enhance three of the most famous episodes from the TV show. The problem lies in the open-ended quality of its source material. The style of the four directors at work (John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller) is also blatantly dissimilar.
The result was three decent shorts that compete against, rather than compliment, each other. Also, the film opens with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd riffing on the original show (and its counterparts). It’s a choice that makes the rest of movie more meta than it needs be. It’s also forever tainted by the infamous helicopter accident that maimed actor Vic Morrow and two kid extras during production. Still, it’s worth a watch, maybe pausing between segments for a bathroom break.
Available on iTunes.
An homage of those outlandish anthology horror comics from the 1950 that brought about the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Based on its source material, the creative team of writer Stephen King and director George A. Romero made the segments creepy, schlocky, cheap and exploitative, which is the appropriate tone for these films. Every over-the-top character endures poetic justice in the form of our ickiest phobias come to life. (Moss! Cockroaches! Being buried in sand!) The sequel couldn’t replicate the magic, but it’s still worth a look.
Available on iTunes.
Scrappy can-do helmer Robert Rodríguez (Desperado) adapts gritty artist Frank Miller’s comic book of seedy crime tales. Rarely has source material and director merged so perfectly. Rodríguez filmed in black and white, then digitally enhanced his shots with sparse use of color. (He credited Miller as co-director and even invited his buddy Quentin Tarantino to helm a segment.)
The result is beautiful in a grungy sort of way. It’s elevated by on-the-nose portrayals from famous faces who are clearly having fun playing film noir stereotypes. The magic fizzled a bit in the sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. That one is still compelling to watch, if for nothing more than enjoying Eva Green’s turn as the titular Dame.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
His personal troubles aside, Woody Allen is a fascinating director. This collection of tales lampooning the medical book of the same name doesn’t represent his best comedic work. It still remains hilarious, though, years after many of its themes have become less taboo. It’s cast of fearless actors elevate the material despite it’s raunchy premise. An impressive feat that is still very difficult to achieve (see Movie 43).
Available on iTunes.
An anthology film twist on the found footage genre popularized by The Blair Witch Project. The rather flimsy framing device – would-be home burglars sift through a collection of tapes on an old VCR – surprisingly lends itself to some rather impressive scares and visuals that make the most of it’s low-quality images.
It was a well-deserved breakout hit for the indie filmmakers behind it. Some of them would reunite for two more direct sequels and the aforementioned Southbound. It’s uneven, yeah, but manages to be compelling through most of its segments. I’m partial to the story about the awkward girl (“I like you”) and the one with the Glitch.
This entry encapsules eight horror shorts inspired by memorable calendar dates. All of the directors working showcase good ideas, visual flare or a combination of both, with very mixed results. This is an example of the weakest link dragging whole the chain. There are good segments here interspersed with so-so ones.
It’s a shame since even the bad ones showed promise (I won’t divulge which are the duds out of respect). However, it’s totally worth a look to witness the “Father’s Day” story, it’s strongest entry. That segment, written and directed by Anthony Scott Burns, is a brilliant work of slow-burning suspense that masterfully balances wonder and dread.
You may find this 2012 Thai horror anthology film lurking in your Netflix queue, screaming: “Watch Me!” That notion is creepier than the whole of this movie. It isn’t particularly offensive, but none of its stories manage to be remotely scary, funny or poignant in the slightest. It doesn’t help that the budget is so low you can see the shoestrings. That there are no lessons to be learned in success. By that logic, this effort is a masterclass on how not to make anthologies, horror of films in general.
Available on Netflix.
There is one thing 3 A.M. has going for it, which is that it’s not Movie 43. A passion project made out of sheer guilt and inertia. Featuring 11 segments and zero laughs. (15 segments if you include the faux commercials and the deleted ones available on home versions.) It stars, no kidding, everybody who was remotely famous at the moment it was released.
You have to admire the tenacity of the filmmakers to trudge on for years to make this, while at the same time wonder what the hell went so wrong in the process. The lesson here? Sometimes you have to know when to let go. Corollary: be a little less conspicuous if you’re making a movie to mask some The Producers-style get-rich-quick scheme or money laundering operation.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I laughed at the Tampax commercial in Movie 43. I give the film no points for this and it makes me question myself as a human being. Maybe it’s my love of sharks. Who knows?