Andrew chronicles some of the varied anthology films that have been released.
When we consider anthologies, we imagine a compendium of several talents coming together in consensus to produce a collection of varied works. Often it's a commission based project helmed by a wealthy producer or curator of sorts, or sometimes the directors themselves enact the project. As an individual film, it's difficult to judge it as a whole because of the varying quality of each segment depending on who was involved with it or what the circumstances were at the time. To say any one of the following entries is a good, solid movie would be unfair because of how different the outlook and execution of each short contained therein are from one another. And yet, these kinds of movies are more common than not, especially in the horror genre. This article will attempt to purvey some of the more noteworthy attempts at the anthological film and their varying degrees of artistic success.
Twilight Zone: The Movie
|"Donnie Darko doesn't|
know evil rabbits!"
Simultaneously a cult item and tragic chapter in Hollywood history, Steven Spielberg and John Landis co-produced this cinematic reimagining of the beloved science fiction television show The Twilight Zone. The idea would be to remake three notable televised episodes with the first being an original piece written and directed by Landis.
Due to a technical misfire while Landis was filming his segment, a special effects explosion struck the tail rotor of a hovering helicopter for a combat sequence, sending it spinning out of control and crashing directly onto its lead actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, killing all three instantly. The disaster nearly ended the project there and then, as Spielberg and Landis friendship dissolved over responsibility for the accident.
Spielberg’s newborn apathy for the project resulted in a half-hearted segment you can’t entirely blame Spielberg for. Would you want to continue on a project that needlessly claimed the lives of three people? Though opening sadly on something of a somber note, the film abruptly springs to life with Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes nightmare (Gremlins) and Mad Max director George Miller’s terrifying reimaging of one of the show’s most beloved episodes, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. For some viewers, the ideal would be to hit the fast forward button and go straight to Miller's segment, but I also recommend giving Joe Dante a fair watch, as he and George Miller tread a fine line between Bugs Bunny goofiness and Ridley Scott Alien terror. Overall, this is an uneven cult picture fraught with tragedy and two really solid segments which begin halfway into the picture. It manages to do its roots justice.
|"Is this where they put the drugs?"|
In one of the more colorful, offbeat and strangely hilarious compilation pieces is the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!. The film is a Japanese production hiring three non-Japanese directors to offer their unique and visually exciting takes on the Tokyo region and its inhabitants. The movie opens on a light romantic comedy about a Japanese couple searching for an apartment, envisioned by Michel Gondry with his trademark brand of playful visual effects ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
While cute, it’s a mildly successful yarn that passes by with little notice. Enter French director Leos Carax with Merde and Denis Lavant’s introduction to one of the director-actor duo’s greatest creations and best assets of Carax’s eventual film, Holy Motors. For anyone who knows Holy Motors, they will recall the ‘sewer dweller’, a bizarre, hostile creature who randomly pops out of the sewers to terrorize local passerby. With one eye glazed over, overgrown and unkempt facial hair, fingernails and toenails, dressed in a green suit, he careens the streets of Tokyo grabbing cash and flowers to eat, cigarettes to smoke while frightening Tokyo’s citizens. Carax’ offering is nothing short of absurdist glee, with the chameleonic Lavant simply having a field day with the bizarre, unearthly character. Is Merde a critique of the lunatic spectacle of Japanese television (particularly game shows like Takeshi’s Castle), or are Carax and Lavant up to something else entirely? Lastly is Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host; Snowpiercer) with Shaking Tokyo, an eclectic balance of quiet minimalism and the brazenly bombastic. The one segment shot in 2.35:1 panorama, Shaking Tokyo zeroes in on a hikikomori, or Tokyo-shut in, who has not left his apartment or shared human contact in well over a decade.
Shaking Tokyo could be read as the most Japanese of the segments, with its elliptical, precise editing and symmetrical vistas of pizza boxes and books neatly stacked together inside the protagonist’s perfect sanctuary. But then it shifts gears when earthquakes crank the bass levels high to a deafening roar and the screen shakes violently. With Shaking Toyko, Bong Joon-Ho seems to suggest compartmentalized, self-imposed loneliness is an epidemic of Japanese culture and only a natural disaster is capable of breaking the vicious cycle.
All in all, Tokyo! is at once looney, goofy, nonsensical, and strangely wise to the ways of Japanese life. It’s an outsider’s take on the rigid lifestyles, behavioral patterns and worldview of a Japanese person, whether in search of a place to reside, how to deal with the unexpected arrival of complete and total disaster, or coming out of a self-imposed shell. Although Gondry’s segment feels too light at times, Carax and Joon-Ho excel with their insight into Japanese fears and the absurdity of said fears once they’re confronted. If nothing else, Carax’s segment sports both Tokyo! and Holy Motors’ finest moments of unbridled lunatic creativity. You can’t help but laugh at and, at times, with the sewer dweller.
New York Stories
New York Stories consists of three short films chronicling life in New York City, in particular focusing on individuals who are specifically of the area with sensibilities derived from their whereabouts. In this unique, rarely seen pairing of three of cinema's most celebrated masters, Martin Scorsese finds himself at home in what some die-hard fans have proclaimed to be his most controlled, technically astute and uncompromising work, Life Lessons. With visually stunning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, slow motion tracking shots, fast zooms and crane shots, the camera is simply alive with movement. Nick Nolte as the smitten artist Lionel Dobie gives a fantastic performance, conveying a wealth of angst, desperation, and desire, all worn with a smug two-face. Equally strong is Patricia Arquette as his assistant and former lover who admires Lionel’s prowess while being disgusted by his suffocating dominance. Scorsese has always been one to know precisely which songs to program into his soundtrack, and with Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum seemingly on repeat, he has found the perfect aural metaphor for Lionel’s tortured soul. With two more shorts ahead, Life Lessons is the only one you need to see.
|"I. Am. So. Wasted. Right now."|
Things unfortunately start to go downhill with the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola’s nonsensical, infantile yarn Life without Zoe. Loosely based on Eloise, Coppola’s segment follows Zoe, a rich, over-privileged 12 year old girl living in a luxurious hotel with her mother (Talia Shire from Rocky), a fashion mogul and her father (Giancarlo Giannini), a world famous flautist. Zoe mingles with her rich friends, freely wandering the streets of New York without fear of harm, hangs out at lush parties, and talks well beyond her age and maturity, making one wonder if the makers of Baby Geniuses and The Good Son looked here for inspiration. Co-written by Coppola and his daughter Sofia, Life without Zoe is like a bad omen for those who didn’t see Jack coming. Despite its glorious cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and fantastical set pieces, this is a completely bizarre and irritating fall from grace for the once great director of The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. Intended to be charming and cute, it is as staggeringly wrongheaded as it is pointless.
Lastly is Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks about an attorney (Allen himself) who cannot seem to shake the reigns of his overbearing mother (Mae Questal from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). Overall this is an amusing short with some rather uncanny twists (which I won’t reveal here) and classic Woody Allen comedy. I suppose therein lies the problem, that Allen is resting on his laurels and gives us precisely what we expect of him. Though lensed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the images consist of standard Woody Allen in that there isn’t much in the way of a unique visual schema.
In hindsight, I recommend New York Stories solely on the basis of the Scorsese segment Life Lessons. I hated Francis Ford Coppola’s annoying infantile behavior, but sort of enjoyed Woody Allen’s comedy of errors. All three segments are lensed by great cinematographers, but beyond Almendros, their talents are under-utilized, if not wasted. I’m giving a strong rating to New York Stories simply because Scorsese’s effort really is that great!
Released by Warner Independent Pictures (largely produced by Michelangelo Antonioni), Eros is a flowery triptych attempting again to respond to the notion of an erotic picture. What makes a film erotic as opposed to merely pornographic or another nude romp? Each director is allowed his own stylistic approach to respond to the question, with varying results in quality depending on one's point of view. Inarguably the most praiseworthy segment is its first, Wong Kar Wai's The Hand (the order of shorts alternates in some territories), which depicts a 1960s call girl and a unique bond she forms with her tailor. Much like Luis Bunuel's Belle De Jour, it purports eroticism isn't about the payoff but the lead in to a sexual encounter. Rather than diving headlong into carnality, it teases through implication, innuendo, and the connection between the two characters. The Hand notably sports Wai's usual cornucopia of dark visual splendor with lighting and colors that seem at once alive and highly artificial. Moving on to Steven Soderbergh's Equilibrium, Robert Downey, Jr. is an advertising executive who pours out his frustration to a psychiatrist about a recurring erotic dream he can't quite grasp.
|"This is not carry out. You|
call wrong number."
Shot in black and white with splashes of color for the dream sequences, Equilibrium echoes the earlier art-house pretensions of Soderbergh's Kafka with Jeremy Irons, which was entirely in archaic black and white save for a fantastical climax shot in full technicolor. Driven largely by conversation and musing rather than any kind of genuine erotic journey or experience, it’s an interesting, understated student effort from an otherwise experienced and prolific filmmaker. Concluding with the late, mute-stricken Michelangelo Antonioni's The Dangerous Thread of Things, we're treated to the film's first real exposure of voluptuous nudity and fairly graphic sexuality onscreen involving a married vacationing couple who encounter a sexy young woman they soon ingratiate into their love lives. While pleasurable to see Antonioni still directing his usual obsessions of ennui with people wander amid sculptures and cityscapes with crusty buildings, you would be hard pressed to find any of the brilliance found in Blow-Up, L'Avventura or La Notte. While attempting to purport real eroticism on camera, we're left with an empty piece made by a really great artist at a point in his career where he was clearly fading. A shame Antonioni's legacy would be damaged by the appearance of this final effort. Overall, if one were to investigate Eros, the most curious segment to satiate one's interest would no doubt be the Wong Kar Wai effort. Then you can leave the remainder of the film unwatched.
In one of the more popular but uneven anthological entries here is the 1995 Tarantino produced Four Rooms about a series of bizarre, comic encounters a bellboy (played by Tim Roth) has in an elite Los Angeles hotel on New Year’s Eve. Coming off of the success of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino enlisted the help of his friend Robert Rodriguez and fellow directors Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. While this should promise to be a subversive, impish romp featuring Tarantino’s one short feature film in his illustrious career, unfortunately Four Rooms only really begins to work halfway into its running time. The film opens with Allison Anders’ segment, The Missing Ingredient, about a coven of witches trying to reverse a spell cast on their goddess. Madonna and Lili Taylor do what they can in a terrible segment that falls flat on its face and nearly manages to sink the film before it even begins.
|"Tim Roth. I know it was you|
that leaked the Hateful Eight script."
The film’s second segment, Alexandre Rockwell’s The Wrong Man, doesn’t help elevate things much. The segment never comes alive and most watching the film in theaters or renting the tape wouldn’t think twice about abandoning it there and then.
Only when Robert Rodriguez takes the reigns with The Misbehavers does the subversive promise of Tarantino’s affiliation with Four Rooms become a reality. It’s a classical, slapstick comedy of errors that ends on a deliciously dark comic note, and really the only reason to bother with Four Rooms, frankly.
Finally we come upon Tarantino’s The Man from Hollywood, about a film director (played by Tarantino of course) and a group of friends who persuade the bellboy to participate in a strange bet. Let it be said that for those of you out there who were disappointed in Death Proof for its abundant dialogue and slow buildup, you’ve yet to be disappointed by The Man from Hollywood, i.e., Tarantino’s real “limp dick” of a movie. All in all, Four Rooms will entertain Tarantino completists but unfortunately, the general critical consensus will agree only Rodriguez’s The Misbehavers is worth a damn.
Destricted – UK Version 2006
Is there an art to pornography or explicit sexual content in modern cinema? An endless debate and can of worms reopened again and again, the directors behind the commission based Destricted attempt to answer that question with their own unique takes on artistic pornography.
|"Is that the lead singer of Oasis?|
His breath is really bad!"
Released in the UK and US with different lineups and overlapping segments, it consists of several short films of varying length depicting either a lecture on sex in culture or abstract portraits of sexual activity. While a fabulous endeavor on paper purporting a dose of freedom for some of cinema's most colorful provocateurs, this anthological experiment is unfortunately a failure. Of the artists with real ideas behind their porn shorts, it's the first three directors who leave a genuine mark: Larry Clark, Gaspar Noe, and Matthew Barney.
Larry Clark's Impaled is part interview project, part porno shoot with Clark interviewing each potential actor for the shoot, finding out their comfort zones before the impending payoff. It's an intriguing conversation piece that provides actual empathy to the otherwise soulless copulation on display.
Gaspar Noe's We Fuck Alone is a 30 minute strobe fest concerning a man and woman masturbating with their respective sex toys. Noe's camera floats about the room with a repetitive echo chamber of ambient sound and faintly heard cries of passion. While Noe is always interesting to behold viscerally, We Fuck Alone is a nihilistic, redundant and overlong segment.
Lastly, Matthew Barney's frankly, perversely bizarre Hoist depicts a costumed man hoisted in the air on some sort of harness as he rubs his member on a lubricated spinning machine. To see it unfold firsthand is as mind blowing as it is to simply read about it. Whatever the Cremasters director intended with Hoist is anyone's guess, but it isn’t something you can admit to ever having seen before. Sadly, the rest consist of either intellectual lectures that are positively unerotic and dull.
Marco Brambilla's Sync, for instance, consists of nothing more than jump cuts taken from various pornos, edited to the sound of abstract drumming. Others like Sam-Taylor Wood's Death Valley, with a man frustrated attempts to masturbate in an open desert, or Marina Abramovic's Balkan Erotic Epic, consisting of various tales of people dry humping the ground or standing in line holding their breasts or genitalia, simply reek of the dreaded philistine overgeneralization often known as art house pretension. Shameful that all the press this anthology received and its pseudo-intellectual de-eroticizing of porn into higher art only amounted to two watchable segments that feel like they’re saying something.
An aria in music is described as ‘any expressive melody usually, but not always, performed by a singer’. Uniting 10 directors together, Aria is a sumptuous love letter to the grand opera, an eclectic mixture of the sublime, sexy and cerebral. All in all, this is one of the most ‘theatrical’ films I’ve come across, with the grandeur and spectacle of an elaborate stage production. Each director is allowed to interpret each given aria however they please with varied length, intercut with a stage performer (John Hurt) strolling through an ornate opera house, working his way towards a grand finale.
|"Someone give me donuts!!!!"|
Most of the shorts come and pass with little notice, though Jean-Luc Godard’s bodybuilding segment is completely irritating. Rigoletto by Julien Temple, a colorful romp concerning a hapless couple (Buck Henry and Beverly D’Angelo) unaware they are mutually cheating on one another, is the highlight of the film. It even manages to sneak in an Elvis Presley impersonator signing opera, a surreal sight that can’t help but inspire chuckles. Things get genuinely sexy with Elizabeth Hurley and Bridget Fonda making their film debuts disrobing before the camera, although their scenes contain loveliness as opposed to carnality or salaciousness.
Scenes of Fonda making love were used to advertise the film’s poster art, giving uninitiated viewers the promise of porn as opposed to opera. A shame such a painterly segment within a sumptuous film was reduced to illicit tantalizing. One of the film’s most visually exciting offerings is Puccini’s Turandot as realized by Ken Russell. Those familiar with The Devils will recall the opening scene with a scantily clad Louis XIII being crowned before dancing about the stage.
Overall, Aria is not a piece of linear or conventional storytelling by any means. It’s a musical revue showcasing some of the highlights of the grand opera as seen through the eyes of its commissioned auteurs. While it might be too artsy for some viewers, it’s also filled with splendid segments about the follies of love that will certainly delight others. I’ll probably be sharing Julien Temple’s hilarious segment with the Elvis impersonator lip synching Rigoletto for quite some time.
Spanning 3 ½ hours, Boccaccio '70 is a whimsical 1962 anthology of love stories by four of Italy's most celebrated filmmakers. Intended as a comic romp of female empowerment, the film takes its name from Giovanni Boccaccio and loosely traverses the framework of his epic The Decameron, chronicling a series of love stories ranging from delightful to downtrodden.
The first act, Renzo & Luciana, directed by Mario Monicelli, is a light yarn about a newlywed couple who do their best to shield the news from their mutual employer as their sleazy boss flirts grotesquely with Luciana. Cut previously from domestic release, the segment showcases a time capsule of modern Italy unseen by many, including a wonderful aside where the couple attends crowded movie theater showing a vampire flick. The sold out screening forces spectators to stand in the aisles, something which rarely ever happens in modern movie theaters.
|"Why, yes. I was looking at her|
Federico Fellini then takes the reigns with inarguably his greatest achievement to date, The Temptation of Doctor Antonio. An uptight, God-fearing type-A prude of a middle-aged man spends his existence raiding couples making love in their cars, overthrowing porn shops and finally waging war on a milk billboard featuring Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg. Soon, however, the billboard begins to truly drive him mad as he imagines Ekberg coming to life as a giantess (think Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) chasing him through a miniature Italy, replete with oversized set pieces and special effects. Ekberg's impish temptation of the little man is as hilarious as it is magical, and even manages to prove one of the puritan's theories about double-entendre to be correct. No stranger to Fellini (Ekberg famously strutted about Fellini's La Dolce Vita), Ekberg brings to vibrant life all the anxieties and fears men have about the opposite sex and questions whether or not purification really is living.
Then the film segues into a more serious, sober tone with Luchino Visconti's The Job, which tells the tale of a woman (Romy Schneider) who is forced to come to grips with her husband's public infidelities with prostitutes and tries to prove her independence while testing the remnants of her husband’s commitment. Made just before completing his masterwork The Leopard, it’s a sober piece driven entirely by dialogue as husband and wife meander through the ornate interiors of their mansion as servants assist the woman with her cats and bath. Of all the segments in Boccaccio ’70, Visconti’s is the most matter of fact and, in its own way, the most damning.
Reverting back to the bawdy whimsy of Fellini’s segment is the last entry by Vittorio De Sica, The Raffle. Starring Sophia Loren at the height of her big screen glamour, The Raffle tells the story of a woman working a circus shooter who inadvertently arouses the passions of a growing mob of horny old men when she offers favors to the winners of a raffle. The Raffle recalls the same degree of playful sexual humor such as when the wild bull doesn’t take kindly to Loren’s bright red dress, forcing her to disrobe before a crowd of onlookers. It’s a fitting and upbeat end to a long journey through Italian architecture, culture and some of the cinema’s most electrifying sex symbols of the time, as told by four of Italy’s finest directors. Of the anthologies listed here, Boccaccio’70 is this writer’s personal favorite.