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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Get omnibus: 17 salvageable segments from multiple-director anthology movies

Illustration for article titled Get omnibus: 17 salvageable segments from multiple-director anthology movies
Illustration for article titled Get omnibus: 17 salvageable segments from multiple-director anthology movies

1. Jim Jarmusch’s “Int. Trailer. Night” from Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002)
Beware the omnibus project so vaguely defined that filmmakers can basically do whatever they want, confident that the theme is abstract and generic enough to admit any concept imaginable. Ostensibly organized around the notion of time as perceptual river (per an opening epigram from Marcus Aurelius), the twin Ten Minutes Older films—one subtitled The Trumpet, the other The Cello; thankfully, we were spared The Accordion—found an alarming number of world-class directors, from Claire Denis to Werner Herzog to Jean-Luc Godard, just dicking around for half a reel. Only Jim Jarmusch bothered to think seriously about just what 10 minutes might signify. Surpassingly lovely and deceptively simple, his “Int. Trailer. Night” observes a movie star (Chloë Sevigny) during the entirety of a short break in the midst of an endless shooting day, as she struggles in vain to find even 10 seconds of genuine repose. In other hands, this might have come across as merely a sad celebrity whine; Jarmusch uses Sevigny’s natural grace and Frederick Elmes’ shimmering black and white cinematography to make it a melancholy but far-from-depressive meditation on how few of our lives’ moments are truly our own.

2. Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” from New York Stories (1989)
“Life Lessons” occupies a significant place in the Martin Scorsese filmography, even though it’s rarely discussed as one of his major works. After Raging Bull, Scorsese spent much of the ’80s in the Hollywood wilderness, unable to get the projects he wanted to make off the ground, and unable to get critics or audiences interested in what he did direct. In 1986, Scorsese took a paycheck from Disney and helmed the impersonal (but still pretty good) The Color Of Money in order to gain the leverage he needed to make The Last Temptation Of Christ. Having finally gotten his Biblical epic out of his system, Scorsese cleansed his palate with “Life Lessons,” working from a script by Richard Price and in a genre he hadn’t attempted in more than a decade: a complex, intimate drama about unrequited love. Nick Nolte plays a famous painter who pines for his aloof assistant (and ex-lover) Rosanna Arquette while he prepares for a show; meanwhile, Scorsese loads up on stylistic filigree, capturing an artist in action and isolating his obsessions with color, movement, music, and alluring female body parts. It’s a mesmerizing piece of work, bravura yet down-to-earth. His batteries recharged, Scorsese jumped right into his next project: a modest little gangster picture called Goodfellas.

3. Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” from Spirits Of The Dead (1968)
Though Spirits Of The Dead pays homage to the macabre stories of Edgar Allen Poe, Federico Fellini uses his segment—an adaptation of Poe’s “Never Bet The Devil Your Head”—to continue working the vein of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, by immersing viewers in the world of the rich and self-involved. Terence Stamp plays a renowned Shakespearean actor whose career is being derailed by his love of excess, until ultimately, his unwillingness to heed anyone’s sound advice leads to a horrific accident. “Toby Dammit” follows the basic outline of Poe’s story, and even keeps some of the author’s sardonic wit, but the look and feel of the film is pure Fellini. It’s all about the grotesques who leech off Stamp’s celebrity, and about Stamp zipping around the city in a Ferrari, desperately (yet coolly) chasing his lost youth.

4. Joe Dante’s “Roast Your Loved One” from Amazon Women On The Moon (1987)
The 1987 omnibus comedy Amazon Women On The Moon is undeniably hit-and-miss, but just about all the segments directed by Joe Dante connect, especially his two-part look at the life and death of ordinary schmoe Harvey Pitnik: first via a Siskel & Ebert-like TV review show, then via a celebrity roast at Pitnik’s funeral. The Pitnik material is funny not so much because of the actual jokes—many of which are intentionally corny—but because of the way Dante and writers Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland nail the rhythm of what they’re parodying. (No great leap for Barrie and Mulholland, who earned their stripes writing jokes for roasts in the early ’70s.) The juxtaposition of Pitnik’s pathetic life with the dismissive commentary of critics and comics emphasizes how the patter of TV personalities has become so routine that it can be applied to anything—even the sorry fate of a useless loser.

5. Samira Makhmalbaf’s “God, Construction And Destruction” from September 11 (2002)
There was a palpable feeling of nervousness heading into the Toronto Film Festival première of September 11, an anthology project featuring work from the expected polyglot of auteurs from around the globe. After all, 9/11 itself fell in the middle of the festival the year before, and there was a general anxiety that it might be too soon on any number of levels. Then Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf (Blackboards) kicked things off with “God, Construction And Destruction,” a sweet, perfectly proportioned short that offered the perspective and wisdom that all the other entries sorely lacked. While her peers were exploiting the tragedy to political (Egypt’s Youssef Chahine), visceral (Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu), or sentimental (America’s Sean Penn, France’s Claude Lelouch) ends, Makhmalbaf focuses on how word of 9/11 might have resonated in a more obscure corner of the world. In an Afghan village, a teacher rounds up her young students and asks them if they’ve heard the big news. They assume she’s talking about two men who fell down a local well; she tries to get them to imagine the unimaginable, which is what a lot of people were doing that day.


6. Joel and Ethan Coen’s “World Cinema” from To Each His Own Cinema (2007)
The parameters given to the 36 directors participating in To Each His Own Cinema were extremely narrow: In honor of the Cannes Film Festival’s 60th anniversary, they each had three minutes to express their current state of mind about the movies. The Coen brothers responded with the hilarious “World Cinema,” a fish-out-of-water scenario in which Josh Brolin, a rube in full No Country For Old Men get-up, wanders into a theater and asks the clerk (Grant Heslov) to help him choose between two films he’s never heard of: Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece The Rules Of The Game, or the contemporary Turkish drama Climates, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. A stranger to the arthouse scene, the cowboy uses an odd decision-making process (“Is there nudity?” “Is there livestock in any of them?”) to settle on Climates, and there’s every indication that his moviegoing experience will be unlike any he’s had before. Viewers should discover the terrific punchline for themselves, but suffice to say, the Coens express an uncharacteristically sunny perspective on how great movies can transcend cultural boundaries and speak to universal truths.

7. Alexander Payne’s “14e Arrondissement,” from Paris Je T’Aime (2006)
Paris Je T’Aime’s 18 wildly uneven shorts attempt a portrait of the city through vignettes set in Paris neighborhoods. Though it packs a cast of reputable directors, including the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Olivier Assayas, and Walter Salles, many of the films fall back on stereotypical notions of Paris and bland, after-school-special-toned messages on cultural acceptance. Each short speaks to a relationship inside the Parisian perimeter, but Alexander Payne’s film gets at the anthology’s core: a relationship with the city itself “14e Arrondissement” touches on a collective dreaming of Paris, and the met and unmet expectations that come with experiencing such a storied city. Payne follows a Denver mail carrier (Margo Martindale) through the streets of Paris while she narrates her day in an essay for her French class back home. He invites a gentle mocking as she bumbles around Paris in a fanny pack and giant white sneakers, ordering hamburgers and inelegantly popping her ears in an elevator. But ultimately, Payne delivers more pathos than any of the other directors. While Sylvain Chomet’s short on mimes contains a quick jab at fat American tourists in cowboy boots, Payne looks at the romance that brings Americans to Paris in the first place. Character actress Martindale does an exquisite job in her mostly silent role, plainly wearing a complicated, soft loneliness as she walks around the city. On a bench in a cemetery, she thinks of her dead sister and mother, and while taking in the view from Tour Montparnasse, she wishes simply for someone to share it with. At the film’s end, Payne breaks from the narration, and we join Martindale in her silence, taking in the sights and sounds of a Parisian park. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this park scene—people lounge around on benches and on the grass—but in this moment, Martindale finds a quiet contentedness in her loneliness and feels, as she puts it, vivant. It’s a silent appreciation inspired by an old, breathing city, and a fitting final testament to the film’s titular aim.

8. Sam Taylor-Wood’s “Death Valley” from Destricted (2006)
Recently, British conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, best known for her work with the Pet Shop Boys, made her feature-film debut with Nowhere Boy, a portrait of John Lennon’s early life that was selected to close the London Film Festival. Whether the world really needs another Beatles-related movie is a fair question—does anybody still remember Backbeat?—but there’s reason to hope that Taylor-Wood may bring a fresh perspective to the subject, as her debut short, “Death Valley,” was the sole inspired contribution to the art-porn film Destricted. Having already endured masturbatory work by Matthew Barney and Larry Clark, the Sundance audience groaned when treated to the sight of a young man jerking off alone in the middle of the desert; as the film goes on (and on), however, and the guy’s rhythm becomes more and more frantic because he justcan’t… seem… to come, the setting becomes a hilarious metaphor for the poor dude’s Sisyphean struggle. By the end, the entire crowd was clapping in time with each stroke, and it felt almost sweet. Do you believe in orgasms, boys and girls?


9. Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Hand” from Eros (2005)
Although this sex-themed trilogy was conceived as an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, who famously introduced L’Avventura by proclaiming, “Eros is sick,” the maestro’s entry is an unfortunate embarrassment, a dreadful self-parody clogged with fatuous dialogue delivered by buxom, blank-faced women whose clothes fall off at the merest provocation; it might as well be called Carry On, Ennui. Steven Soderbergh’s glib shaggy-dog story is scarcely better. The only wise move the film’s producers made was leading with Wong’s “The Hand,” a miniature masterpiece that echoes the hothouse sensuality of In The Mood For Love. Gong Li, a brocaded cheongsam stretched tight over her curves, plays a Hong Kong courtesan who engages tailor Chang Chen to look after her professional wardrobe, and pays him off in the currency of her trade. Simultaneously sumptuous and restrained—Li’s economical elbow-jerks take place just below the frame—the film’s characteristically languorous imagery embodies the erotic push-pull of sexual pursuit, always one of Wong’s pet subjects, and unlike its compatriots, it actually ends with a satisfying climax.


10. David Lynch, “Premonition Following An Evil Deed” from Lumière Et Compaigne (1995)
The assignment was deceptively simple: Film a 55-second short film, no cuts, one shot, and three takes, no synchronized sound. But out of all the filmmakers Phillipe Poulet approached with his original Lumière camera, only David Lynch took the ball and ran with it into an utterly cinematic world. His short film features multiple tableaux, wipes accomplished by covering the camera lens, a scene revealed by burning the curtain in front of it, and a tale of alien abduction. It’s spooky as hell, it’s unmistakably Lynch, but it’s also one of the few segments in Lumière Et Compaigne that actually makes use of the power of cinema to take viewers into powerfully archetypal worlds with just a few selected images. Leave it to Lynch to make the most of every meter of film he gets to crank through that magical box.

11. Wilfred Jackson’s “Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” from Fantasia (1940)
Met with near-universal praise for decades, Walt Disney’s Fantasia hasn’t aged well. Its blend of Disneyfied whimsy and middlebrow classical music has held up in some ways (like the natural history lesson backed by Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring”), but other sections, like the Beethoven segment and the too-cute “Dance Of The Hours,” seem less delightful as the years go by. Pauline Kael and Flann O’Brien even singled out the beloved Mickey Mouse “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment as kitschy. Of the 11 directors who helped assemble Fantasia, the one who put in the best work was studio veteran Wilfred Jackson, whose “Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” segment is still powerful, thanks to the sacred-to-profane arc of the musical program and expressive animation by the brilliant Bill Tytla. It coheres better than any other portion of the film, and delivers on Walt Disney’s promise that the production would be a unique experiment in music and film.

12. Eric Goldberg’s “Rhapsody In Blue” from Fantasia 2000 (1999)
While it eventually recouped its expenses (and then some) through several theatrical re-releases, Fantasia’s initial box-office failure put the kibosh on Walt Disney’s plan to keep his visualized music anthology eternally running and constantly updated. Unfortunately, the first additional Fantasia segments wouldn’t be seen until 44 years after Disney’s death, by which time Disney animators were caught in the studio’s awkward transition between hand-drawn and computer animation. As a result, most of Fantasia 2000 has a feel of “Check out these computer-generated whales!”—save for Aladdin animator Eric Goldberg’s take on “Rhapsody In Blue.” Matching the jazzy melodies of George Gershwin’s masterpiece to the playful lines of Al Hirschfeld caricatures, Goldberg creates a 1930s Manhattan that hums with the composer’s clarinets and beats with the heart of his brass. Using a color palette of cool pastels—with a just-shy-of-literal emphasis on blue—the sequence sets a mood of Depression-era discontent in The Big Apple. But this being a Disney film, that mood is chased away by the sequence’s end, with each of Goldberg’s characters realizing their fantasies, set to a Rockefeller Center ice ballet.

13. François Truffaut’s “Antoine Et Colette” from Love At Twenty (1962)
Long the missing chapter in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, this chapter from the amour-themed 1962 anthology finds Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine on the verge of adulthood, straining for the next step and falling short. The way he carries out his overeager courtship of the cool, callous Colette (Celine and Julie Go Boating’s Marie-France Pisier), you know he’s going to get his heart broken, but Truffaut never makes the inevitable feel like a foregone conclusion. The comparatively minor companion segments from Andrzej Wajda, Marcel Ophüls, Shintarô Ishihara, and Renzo Rossellini remain in limbo, but “Antoine” is available as part of Criterion’s Doinel box set.


14. Richard McGuire’s “[untitled]” from Fear(s) Of The Dark (2007)
The old dark house has been a reliable horror-movie trope since cinema’s infancy—James Whale (Frankenstein) even directed a film called The Old Dark House in 1932. But while there may be older and even some creepier specimens scattered throughout the horror canon, there isn’t likely to be a house as overwhelmingly, penetratingly dark as the one at the very end of Fear(s) Of The Dark, a French-financed collection of animated horror shorts. All of the contributions are black and white, but the final segment, directed by Richard McGuire, goes extremely heavy on the black and skimps on the white. Only a roving candle and the embers of a dying fire illuminate the house’s sole inhabitant, who’s otherwise visible only via his perpetually fear-widened eyeballs; if nothing else, it’s one of the most visually astonishing exercises in contrast ever attempted for the big screen. The one minor drawback: McGuire’s bravura accomplishment is just too damn dazzling to be scary. It’s hard to get nervous about offscreen bumps and creaks when you’re marveling at the way he captures a bottle of booze rolling across the floor, its white label the only discernible sign of its progress.

15. Abbas Kiarostami’s “[untitled]” from Tickets (2005)
For the latter half of the ’80s and all of the ’90s, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami ranked among the two or three most critically revered film directors in the world. His work this decade, however, has been met largely with sorrowful indifference, mostly because he’s abandoned visually exquisite studies of character and landscape for ugly, video-shot lectures and quasi-structural experiments in form. Only his segment of Tickets, a collaboration with Italy’s Ermanno Olmi and Britain’s Ken Loach, demonstrates any hint of his former glory. Set entirely onboard a train traveling from somewhere in Eastern Europe to Rome, the film begins steeped in melancholy (Olmi) and concludes with scrappy comedy (Loach), but Kiarostami’s middle section is the one that most beguiles, even though the narrative is so wispy it seems ready to blow right out one of the train’s windows at any moment. A young Italian man escorts an irritable war widow, who complains about everything within bitching distance—and that’s about it, really. But Kiarostami’s interest in human beings and the art of composition make a very welcome reappearance here, and the result, while far from earth-shattering, serves at the very least as a reminder of the magnificent talent we can only hope he won’t continue to squander.

16. George Miller’s “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
The movie adaptation of the Twilight Zone television series was plagued with problems. Over budget, over deadline, and with four different directors each imparting their segments with very different tones, it almost didn’t get made—and that’s before the tragedy that beset John Landis’ contribution. Still, it wasn’t a total disaster; Joe Dante’s segment was energetic and entertaining, and George Miller, the Australian director responsible for the Mad Max and Babe movies, turned in the best of the lot. In the final segment, he recycled an episode from the show called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” replacing canned ham William Shatner with fresh-baked ham John Lithgow. He’s on a flight menaced by a demonic creature only he can see, and his meltdown performance, combined with Miller’s tight, economical direction, makes the segment a treat that helps salvage the movie.

17. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “La Ricotta” from RoGoPaG (1963)
Hailing from the heyday of the omnibus film, the 1963 anthology RoGoPaG gathers three of the era’s heavy hitters—Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Pier Paolo Pasolini—and appends a fourth segment from the forgotten Ugo Grigoretti (who, if this is any indication, deserves his oblivion). Rossellini’s uncharacteristically lighthearted segment is fine, and Godard’s “The New World” draws parallels between romantic dissolution and nuclear annihilation, but Pasolini edges him out with his confrontational mixture of antic satire and social tragedy. Orson Welles, his familiar basso dubbed into an Italian tenor, plays the Marxist director of a film on Christ’s crucifixion. (If the parallel with Pasolini, who was working on The Gospel Of Saint Matthew, wasn’t clear enough, he reads aloud from the director’s Mamma Roma.) But the auteur, and for that matter, the son of God himself, play supporting roles to the bedraggled actor Stracci (literally, “rags,”) an impoverished day player cast in the role of the good thief. Scorned by his fellow cast and crew, who mutter casual blasphemies while walking about the set, Stracci sets out in search of food, desperately gorging himself on scraps while the others look on and laugh. The arid Technicolor inserts from the production make for a vivid contrast with the black-and-white chronicle of Stracci’s struggles, which Pasolini often undercranks to provide a sense of comic frenzy. The overlooked actor finally undergoes his own passion, taunted with sandwiches and soda bottles once his arms have been strapped to his prop cross. In a classically wrong-headed move, the Catholic Church condemned Pasolini’s segment as blasphemous, and he was convicted (with a suspended sentence) for “maligning the religion of the state,” even though “La Ricotta” is plainly an attack on blasphemy and the hollow piety of religious pomp. But the money-lenders didn’t care much for Jesus, either. RoGoPaG is unavailable on DVD in America, but “La Ricotta” graces the bonus features of Criterion’s Mamma Roma disc.

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