Movie 43 and V/H/S Make Us Wonder: Are Omnibus Films Always Disappointing?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 5 2012 1:25 PM

Are Omnibus Films Always Disappointing?

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Kate Winslet in Movie 43

As we head into Oscar season this winter, we expect to see Academy Award winners promote their prestige pictures with the usual solemnity. This week, however, we have also seen Naomi Watts call her son a fuckface, Halle Berry blow out a blind kid’s birthday-cake candles, and Terrence Howard tell an all-black basketball team they are guaranteed to beat their white rivals because “this ain’t hockey.” And all of this in one trailer: The NSFW promo for Movie 43, below, shows a whole host of prominent thespians playing against type. The film is made up of 25 shorts from such comedy directors as Brett Ratner, Bob Odenkirk, and the Farrelly brothers.

Movie 43 may remind viewers of recent romantic comedies consisting of multiple, separate storylines—Love Actually if you’re feeling generous, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve if you’re not. But those movies, while technically speaking omnibus films (also known as anthology or portmanteau films) were all steered by a single director. Movie 43 is part of a more specific tradition, one that is often more artistically ambitious: films made up of separate segments shot by multiple directors. There was Eros, for instance, which brought together Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni; New York Stories, brought to you by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen; Six in Paris, by Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others. This last movie inspired Paris, Je T’aime, which included a Coen Brothers-directed short starring Steve Buscemi and Alexander Payne’s portrait of a Denver postal worker trying to communicate in French—not to mention movies by Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and Wes Craven, among many others.

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There’s something irresistible about seeing such talented directors sharing the same bill—but the results are almost always disappointing. In 2004’s critically-panned Eros, for example, Wong Kar-Wai’s short “The Hand” garnered praise while Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni’s additions made the film groan-worthy and, some argued, not worth the price of a movie ticket. While a given short within an omnibus film might be excellent, the whole often feels like less than the sum of its parts. And a unifying theme doesn’t necessarily help: Aria had ten different directors—including Godard, Robert Altman, and Ken Russell—interpret operatic arias; in a fairly generous review, Roger Ebert said it was perhaps best enjoyed “almost as a satire of itself.” Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined two other directors to make Four Rooms, which had a straightforward premise but got a disappointing reception (a “stupefying attempt to create a kind of art-house Jerry Lewis movie,” one critic called it).

One of the more elaborate premises for an omnibus film is hitting screens this weekend: V/H/S portrays a group of horrible men who are hired to steal a VHS tape from someone’s home, where they find a dead man in front of several VCRs. They start watching his VHS tapes, and these turn out to be creepy short horror movies directed by a range of indie auteurs. So far, the film is getting mixed reviews—with even some of the more receptive critics deeming the set-up “half-scary/half nonsensical.” While omnibus movies may play a valuable role in getting short films into theaters, it’s hard not to conclude that many of those short films are best watched separately.

Further reading: A User’s Guide to Essential Anthology Films,” courtesy of FlavorWire.

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