By Nathanael Griffis
Sometimes called vignette films, anthology films are a genre of a film I greatly lack in. I haven’t watched many except the two big ones, Sin City and Pulp Fiction, which are probably the most well-know examples. To put it simply, anthology films are a collection of short films, or vignettes if you will, that somehow connect together. I want to make a distinction between anthology and montage films like Babel, Crash, or Magnolia. Montage films tend to be one overarching story built together from different perspectives. Anthology films are separate stories that may share some similar qualities, but do not have to form a cohesive narrative. Take Pulp Fiction, for example: the stories are connected by having cross-over characters, but each vignette could be its own stand-alone film.
I love Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but to be honest, that’s about where my knowledge of anthology films ends. Embarrassing I know, but anthology films are not mainstream to be honest. They’re hard to find, but provide an interesting change of pace for filmgoers. One of the things I love about them is that they give a chance for legendary filmmakers to collaborate, like New York Stories where Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese each directed one story. They can examine a single theme with various tones of drama or comedy. There’s a chance for greatness, and if one of the stories sucks you know another, hopefully better one is coming soon. My goal is to watch around six to ten anthology films and explore the themes, successes, and failures of this little watched genre.
To begin, I started with Four Rooms, a film I’d heard little about but was pleasantly surprised to watch. As you might guess it’s about four stories in four rooms. What initially attracted me was the directors and cast, which is a normal draw to anthology film. Four Rooms was directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. The last two names really drew my attention. Four Rooms was made in 1995, when Rodriguez and Tarantino were still just making names for themselves. The basic premise is that a bellhop, played by the wonderful Tim Roth, is left alone for what becomes an absolutely insane night as he deals with one room full of unexpected occurrences after the next. As is to be expected, each segment revolves around a particular room and their residents.
They flow nicely for the most part except for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed with anthology films is that one weak segment can sour all the rest. At the very least it feels like a wasted 15 minutes. “The Missing Ingredient” starts with Madonna asking the hapless bellhop Ted for the honeymoon suite. Soon other all-female guests start to arrive, representing varying degrees of stereotypical characters with accents, from the Southern belle to the Midwestern fifties girl to the prim and proper strong East Coast woman. It turns out that these women are a coven of witches trying to revive their cursed deity, but one of them has forgotten a certain ingredient. A certain ingredient that Ted can provide. I’d avoid spoilers, but it’s kinda painfully obvious. This segment just feels out of place, and Madonna is distractingly awful in skin tight leather literally spending a few minutes bending over in front of the camera in deliberate slow motion. It also isn’t funny and is basically skimming the surface of sex jokes. It seems to be on a rush to get to the punch line, but begrudgingly needs to fill up 15 minutes so they show some boobs, read some poetry, have a strange animation moment, and call it good.
It wasn’t until the end of the entire film, though, that I noticed the true flaw of this segment. It’s not about Ted, or doesn’t feature him enough, which is so sad, because the single great thing about this film is that it reminds me Tim Roth is an astounding actor. I’ve never really seen him do comedy and he pulls off an off-kilter-in-a-good-way physical performance that should really be studied. His character grows and changes but tries to remain composed as his night becomes increasingly chaotic. He has so many equally charming and somewhat disturbing physical quirks that are just sheer pleasure to watch. The simple way his character walks is hilarious. To see him pull a 90-degree turn from being stabbed with needle and running out of a burning room to answering the phone in a polite British accent is astounding. It’s fascinating that his character remains pretty static in performance across the board in each segment. It makes me wonder who decided to write his character that way and how much the four directors collaborated. This is definitely a distinctly comedic film. It has a fascinating 50’s/60’s sense of comedy–with a Pink Panther-esque animated opening even–but with a 90’s presentation and topics.
Because you’ll want to know, here’s a rundown of the other segments. The second segment is where the film really gets going. It takes a distinctly dark turn with “The Wrong Man,” directed by Alexandre Rockwell, a director who’s managed to stay off everyone’s radar. Ted the bellhop walks into the wrong room and is mistaken for a the lover of deranged man’s wife. The comedy in this scene is extremely dark and a bit unsettling at first, but it fits with the other two segments a lot better than “The Missing Ingredient.” Also, there’s a lot more of Tim Roth, so it’s exceedingly better. “The Misbehavers,” directed by Robert Rodriquez, is basically what would happen if Rodriguez made one of his kids’ films rated R. The final scene is a ridiculous send-off to screwball comedies with a wonderful punchline from Antonio Banderas to boot.
The real treat is the final segment, “The Man from Hollywood,” with trademark Tarantino dialogue and characters. It moves forward slowly, building tension constantly yet realistically. I don’t want to give away too much, but will say thing it’s inspired by Roald Dahl’s Man from the South and an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of the same name—if you know either of those you’ll understand the plot almost immediately. Interestingly, the characters in Four Rooms get the name of the Alfred Hitchcock short wrong. The short is definitely worth checking out, considering it stars Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen. What’s really impressive about “The Man from Hollywood” is what Tarantino does with the camera. Overall, with the exception of the first segment, the cinematography is astounding for such short films. It’s really something in “The Man from Hollywood”–there are long one-take shots, close-ups, monologues, and dizzying crane shots, but they coalesce. The only problem is that Tarantino again insists on placing himself into the lead acting spot, which is hit-and-miss. He’s such a larger-than-life character that he sometimes seems to leave his character behind and just be himself. I’m glad that in subsequent films he’s stayed in the director’s chair.
Overall this is a surprisingly good introduction for my newest genre foray. I found it to be really funny and engaging. It’s wonderful to see different directors lending their hands to inventive stories. If only the first bit hadn’t been there, or had focused more on Tim Roth. Any moment Roth is on screen is really quite wonderful, as is the rest of the cast which includes Marisa Tomei, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, and Paul Calderon.
Next I’m going to stay with comedic anthology films and watch David Wain’s The Ten.