Hollywood: Please greenlight more anthologies
I have this thing I do where I save movies, books, or albums from artists I love. One day Stephen King will pass away and there won't be any new Stephen King books to read - but if I save a book or two of his to read after his death, I will have something to look forward to. On the film side, Joel and Ethan Cohen are easily among my top five favorite filmmakers working today. I love pretty much every movie they make - which is why I had saved two films of theirs as an emergency stockpile, the titles stashed away like canned goods in an underground bunker.
The way 2020 has been going, though, I have started to rethink my strategy. Who knows what the world has in store for us? We could be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in a year's time. So, facing an uncertain future that may or may not feature Lord Humongous, I made the decision to dig into my emergency stockpile sooner than later. That's why, last night, I finally found myself watching THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.
Guys, I loved this movie so much. It was everything I was hoping for and more. I want to lure THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS into a moving van by pretending to be an invalid, drug it with chloroform, throw it into a hole in my basement, and soften its skin through a forced lotion care regime so I can live inside the movie.
For those unaware, the film is a collection of six short vignettes - all set in the American western frontier and starring an amazing collection of actors including Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan and so much more. The movie serves as a cinematic sketchbook - with each story being a small distillation of ideas, characters, and tones. There isn't necessarily a narrative throughline that exists between the stories and, in fact, there had been early talk of the stories being released as a television show instead of a film. What links the stories is a beautiful scenic setting - the kind that made me fall in love with LONESOME DOVE - and a gentle playfulness that makes the movie feel like something that has always existed in the fringes of my awareness - a tall tale told around a campfire from my youth.
The Coens developed the stories that would make up THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS over two decades, working on the short scripts on and off again between projects. As a whole, the movie is a fascinating portrait of everything I love about the Coen Brothers' films - a blend of whimsy, shocking - almost cartoonish - violence, and a reality that oscillates frequently between being heightened and naturalistic.
While watching THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, I couldn't help but wish that more filmmakers would try their hands at anthologies. There are certain directors that have an unmistakable style - you can jump into their movies at any point and know, within moments, who directed it. Maybe it's the dialogue, or the camera work, or the way that the actors exist in their surroundings - but there's just a certain something that feels like a director's signature stamped over the entirety of the film. I want to see these directors' cinematic sketchbooks - anthologies that allow them to flex their style over a collection of concepts and characters.
The television anthology series is alive and thriving right now - with popular shows out there that both tell different stories each season and shows that change up the stories between each episode. One of my favorite recent examples of television anthology is LITTLE AMERICA, available to stream on Apple TV.
Each episode runs about 30 minutes and is inspired by the real-life story of an immigrant discovering their own personal American dream. From a 12-year-old Indian boy who must take over managing his parents' hotel after they are deported to a Nigerian college student rediscovering his childhood obsession with cowboys while studying in Oklahoma to an undocumented immigrant who finds discipline through the urban squash club - every single story in this television show has a moment that made me gasp back a tear or two.
If you're a fan of THIS AMERICAN LIFE, do yourself a favor and check this show out. The world around us sucks and is scary and it's easy to just want to give up but I truly believe LITTLE AMERICA is a show with the power to fill you with enough optimism to get through this craziness.
When it comes to movies, though, most anthologies tend to be genre films, such as horror movies like CREEPSHOW or horror-adjacent stuff like HEAVY METAL. There are, of course, a few examples of non-genre anthologies such as NEW YORK STORIES and FOUR ROOMS. Directors like Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch have made plenty of films in their careers that were anthology or anthology-like. There are also hyperlink movies, which are films that tell separate stories that are connected via overlapping narratives, such as SIN CITY, PULP FICTION, and SNATCH. I want more, though. I want anthology films in all genres and formats. I want to see more light comedies like PARIS, JE T'AIME and LOVE ACTUALLY and I want to see more sci-fi anthologies like THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. Crime, musical, fantasy, whatever - give it all to me.
Imagine an anthology where a collection of directors all took a crack at making a short film inspired by a song from a classic album like The Beach Boy's PET SONGS or Pink Floyd's THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Imagine an anthology where short stories by Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, or the aforementioned Stephen King were adapted by some of the top filmmakers? Heck, considering the popularity of superhero films, imagine a Batman anthology five different directors all put their different spin on the Dark Knight?
The possibilities for anthology movies are endless. I love horror anthologies, but why is it that the genre seems to have a monopoly on the format? I want to live in a world where anthology films are commonplace, not just the occasional treat dolled out every few years. People's attention spans are getting shorter - anthology films' time has come!
Oh, well. At least I'll always have THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. At least until we lose electricity and are forced to trade dog food cans as currency.