Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Portmanteau A Go-Go

Portmanteau films, also called omnibuses or anthology films, tend to live in the shadows of regular features. They are usually decried as uneven and disjointed, often because of varying quality between the segments, conflicting visions of multiple directors or the failure of a central theme to gel. I’m never quite sure how I feel about them and for a long time I made a special point of avoiding even well-regarded omnibuses.

My interest was eventually stirred by Professor David Scott Diffrient, whose opinion I quickly came to value. I later learned he was something of an expert on the topic. We had the option of hitting the theater for a screening of “Three… Extremes” (2004) as part of our final projects. How awesome is that?

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get around to seeing the particular anthologies we discussed in class: “In Our Time” (1982) and “The Sandwich Man” (1983) from the dawn of the Taiwanese New Wave. In my defense, copies of these films are not exactly falling from the sky. However, I have kept my eyes open for interesting omnibuses and for those who are also interested in or curious about episodic cinema a fantastic opportunity will be available this Halloween.

Turner Classic Movies is rather brilliantly showing an anthology of horror anthologies: five back-to-back horror portmanteaus running past the wee hours of the morning. I plan to start a little early with “House of Usher” at 6:30 and than watch the next 12 hours through, marathon style. Here’s a bit of an overview:

Dead of Night” (1945) – This is the plum that really caught my eye, since I’ve been vacillating about buying an expensive VHS just to see it for quite some time. It kicked of the directing career of Charles Crichton (“The Lavender Hill Mob”) and Robert Hamer (“Kind Hearts and Coronets”) and also features segments by Basil Dearden (“The Blue Lamp”) and Alberto Calvacanti. It was a very early example of the omnibus mode, highly influential, well-regarded and now somewhat rare (not on DVD in the US and expensive otherwise). I plan to feature it in an upcoming Iceberg Arena on evil ventriloquist dummies.

Twice-Told Tales” (1963) – Three Vincent Price vehicles directed by Sidney Salkow and written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It should be a pretty safe bet for Price fans.

Torture Garden” (1967) – I’m guessing this will be my least favorite of the series, but I still plan to give it a chance. I’ve never seen any of the British Amicus Anthologies (best known for “Tales from the Crypt”), and I’m told this is not one of the best, but it gives me a place to start. Freddie Francis directs the five shorts tied together by a magic sideshow carnie.

Kwaidan” (1964) – This is the only one I’ve already seen pre-Halloween, and I can certainly vouch for it. Masaki Kobayashi’s four episodes may not be particularly terrifying, but they are gorgeous feats of color, atmosphere and set design. Absolutely immaculate presentation (the Criterion restoration will hopefully be used) and ample time (3 hours) to develop the stories makes this a standout.

Spirits of the Dead” (1968) - #2 if ranked by my anticipation is this rather prestigious omnibus featuring three Edgar Allen Poe stories adapted by none other than Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim and featuring Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp, Alain Delon and Peter Fonda. It’s considered one of the best of its breed and though it isn’t hard to find the DVD online, its unavailability on Netflix made me put it off for far too long.

Needless to say, I’ll be getting very little sleep and ill-timed interruptions by trick-or-treaters might be sent screaming from the door in a less than joking manner.

And now I plan to ramble about portmanteaus for a little bit. I’m wondering if anyone has some good recommendations. Let me hear about them if so!

I tend to like ones made by a single director, since this usually adds greater cohesion. I’m thinking along the lines of “Paisa” (1946) or “Robot Stories” (2003), though it isn’t always a hard rule. “Fantasia” (1940), for instance, is one of my favorites despite several directors while I consider Vittorio De Sica’s “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963) quite undeserving of its Oscar. I’ve already ragged on Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” (1989), but I’m actually a bit curious about his “Night on Earth” (1991).

I was recently disappointed by “Pearls of the Deep” (1966), an omnibus central to the Czech New Wave. Despite featuring shorts by a who’s-who lineup of Czech greats like Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilova, Jaromil Jires, it almost never rises out of mediocrity. It deserves its place in the history books far more than its place on my DVD shelf.

I’ve had better luck with anime anthologies, which tend to be SF-themed and pretty creative. Their inherently hit-or-miss nature and diverse artistic styles tends to prevent them from being masterpieces while guaranteeing that everyone will find something to their taste. My friend Mad Dog introduced me to “Neo Tokyo” (1986) and “Memories” (1995). I had to track down the somewhat rarer “Robot Carnival” (1987) on my own.

Sometimes it helps to have a unifying theme or an interesting frame story to tie the segments together. More often than not, this involves something incredibly banal or cheap like acquaintances telling tales around a camp fire, a child falling asleep in a haunted house or a writer searching for inspiration (1924’s “Waxworks”). I haven’t yet seen very many of the omnibuses tied together by a single object, of which there are many, but it’s a technique I enjoy in non-anthology films like “Winchester ‘73” (1950), “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953) and “Money” (1983).

I remember thinking that the connective thread of “Heavy Metal,” a glowing green orb of great power and infinite evil, only proved just how often hack writers of degenerate fantasy/horror/SF already rely on glowing orbs or great power and infinite evil or their equally clichéd equivalents. Its enduring popularity makes me sad.

Two of my favorite frame stories feature much more intriguing and frankly bizarre concepts:

“The Illustrated Man” (1969) stars Rod Steiger as a hobo whose body is almost completely covered in tattoos (yes, even there). A younger, more naïve hobo camps with him one night, learns the supernatural history of the illustrations and discovers that staring into them brings them to life as strange, pessimistic science-fiction tales. Steiger and a particularly pretty Claire Bloom are recycled in most of the segments, each based on shorts by Ray Bradbury.

Then there’s “Dreams That Money Can Buy” (1947), which I just watched recently. The title alone would have drawn me in, but learning that it consisted of shorts by such major surrealist figures as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger and Hans Richter absolutely sold me. John Cage and Darius Milhaud provide some of the music. The frame story is the noirish tale of a penniless man with the ability to see and sell dreams, a skill that turns into a highly in-demand enterprise. Surprisingly, it’s Man Ray who creates the biggest dud, despite more experience behind that camera than all save Richter.

Today, anthology films seem a lot less popular, though I know they’re lurking here and there. I catch the occasional example when they get a lot of media attention, like “The Animatrix” (2003), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003) or “Paris, je t’aime” (2006). They’ve been largely replaced by hyperlink cinema; multi-threaded plots tied together by loose connections or a single focal event (think “Amores Perros” or “Magnolia” to name just a couple), but I think they continue to be a worthwhile way of packaging oft-neglected shorts.


Uncle Gustav said...

"Portmanteau films"...FINALLY! Someone's given a name to this subgenre. There were scads of them made in the early/mid-'60s in Europe -- Rogopag and The Seven Deadly Sins and Paris vu par come immediately to mind, but there were dozens more. Perhaps there should be a Portmanteau Blogathon!

FilmWalrus said...

Count me in! I haven't seen any of the ones you mentioned and I know of several more that I'm interested in. I'd love to hear about everyone's favorites!

FilmWalrus said...

I can't believe it! I thought the films were playing today (Fri), but they actually played Thursday night (which doesn't make much sense). I missed the whole thing! Now my plan for Halloween have changed: stew angrily for the rest of the evening.

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Pearls of the Deep, the Facets DVD (which is what I assume you watched, as it's the only English-subtitled one available) is utterly atrocious, and really doesn't do the film justice at all.

Not only are the subtitles painfully out of sync (to the point where watching it is something of an ordeal), they're also woefully incomplete, and don't even try to render writer Bohumil Hrabal's highly distinctive, colloquial style into convincing English. To add insult to injury, picture and sound are VHS quality (worse, in fact, thanks to all the digital artefacting), and vastly inferior to the Czech DVD.

Sadly, the latter doesn't have English subtitles - which is a real shame, as it's a far better edition. Not least because it includes all seven of the films that were originally made for it, and Ivan Passer's A Boring Afternoon is a little masterpiece. (To my astonishment, I found a pretty decent set of subtitles online and managed to sync them up).

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, the "Pearls of the Deep" DVD is probably the worst Facet's transfer I've seen yet. I'm not usually one to be easily bothered by subpar versions (I still watch VHSs from the library on occasion), but even I found this one a little outrageous.

Two unrelated items:
1) Great intro on the Second Run "Valerie" DVD. I never cease being impressed with the depth of your knowledge.
2) Have you looked into AllCluesNoSolutions.com for Czech DVDs? It's pretty up front on the quality and had a lot of stuff I was looking for.