Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Anthologize This

By Edward Copeland
Last night, I finally watched Nine Lives and my reaction was about what I expected, namely the same that happens when I watch any film that is an anthology of scenes. To me, by their very nature, they can't help but be unsatisfactory. I liked segments in Nine Lives and there were certainly a lot of strong performances, but for me films made up of what are essentially short films are doomed to disappoint.

You start and stop nine different times in this movie and it's inevitable that you are going to like some segments more than others and unless they hit a lucky streak where there are more segments you like than segments you don't, the film itself will leave you underwhelmed.

This has been the case with nearly every film anthology I can think of. Take Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). I could watch the segments inside the male body, with Gene Wilder and the sheep, the "What's My Line?" takeoff and even with Woody's court jester numerous times, but I doubt there is enough money in the world to make me endure the segment with Lou Jacobi as a cross-dresser again. Fortunately, I think there is more good than bad in Allen's film, but not enough to compete with his truly great works.

Another example involving Allen was New York Stories. I think the first segment, "Life Lessons," by Martin Scorsese is brilliant. So good in fact that anything that follows it is almost certain to disappoint and, in the case of Francis Ford Coppola's "Life Without Zoe," do more than disappoint. It's such a lifeless, pointless mess that all the goodwill that Scorsese built up in the viewer evaporates. When Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" shows up, it skews your reaction. It's funny and a welcome respite from Coppola's train wreck, but is your reaction truly because you find it funny or just because you are relieved. Would it have played differently as the middle film of the trilogy or the first?

One of the greatest anthology misfires I've ever endured was Aria, where 10 directors take their shot at making short films out of classic opera passages — and all but one fail. This list included Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell and Julien Temple. The only segment I liked was Franc Roddam's "Liebestod," set in Las Vegas and starring a young Bridget Fonda — and I wasn't familiar with any of Roddam's previous works.

By their nature, anthology films start to remind me of old episodes of TV's Love American Style. You almost expect each segment to end with some cutesy freeze frame and explosion of fireworks. Honestly, I don't even see what the appeal is for filmmakers. Look at the disaster that was Four Rooms, connected only by the character of Tim Roth's bellhop. Only Robert Rodriguez's segment entertains and the other three segments are ponderous misfires.

The one example I can think of where all the segments of an anthology are about on par is the film adaptation of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite — each segment is funnier than the one that precedes it. It's not a great film, but it works for what it is.

On the other end of the scale, there are things like Creepshow and Twilight Zone: the Movie where you are lucky that you get one segment worth watching. Hell, in Twilight Zone, the prologue and epilogue with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks are better than three of the segments of the film itself.

There is something to be said for having a movie that moves from beginning to end in whatever way it chooses. The films that choose to merge and intercut stories and characters (such as Pulp Fiction or Nashville or Short Cuts) end up infinitely more satisfying than the ones that start and stop and start again. Nine Lives does have some characters who recur in subsequent segments, but really it's to no point and no avail.

Perhaps the only anthology that I would call great is Richard Linklater's Slacker and that's because it doesn't play like an anthology. It flows from one segment to the next on a nonstop trip from beginning to end.

Come to think of it, my resistance to movies as anthology is probably why I've always been lukewarm to Fantasia.

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One of my friends has the same ugh-reaction to "anthology films" that you've written:

...by their very nature, they can't help but be unsatisfactory.

I can understand that point-of-view: less time with characters, shorter plots, etc.

But I kind of like them anyway. Trying to come up with (sometimes wild) connections between episodes, or figuring out why they're in the order they're in, can be fun.

However, I make a big distinction between "anthology films" made by one filmmaker and those made by several. The latter I usually dislike.
I think I like anthology films, whether by a single or multiple directors. Yes, they're always inconsistent, but at least it's a way to work with a shorter format. How else can you package short films?
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