Mise en scene. Montage. Auteur. The French really like writing and theorising about movies, and thus have bequeathed many terms unto the film lexicon. And I am just pretentious enough to toss them around without regard for whosoever may be rolling their eyes. But there’s one French term to which I have never taken. Portmanteau. As in “portmanteau film.” You know the type, even if you don’t know the term. It is a film made up of smaller stand-alone sequences. Pulp Fiction (1994) is a portmanteau film. If you want to go back a bit farther, Intolerance (1916) would also be considered one. But since I don’t much care for the term, I’ll be using my own term of choice – the chapter film.
This is a little essay about chapter films, beginning with a short description of their many flavours and ending with several examples of good, underrated versions. So, in the spirit…
What exactly is a Portmanteau Chapter Film?
Excellent question. It’s a movie with structure predicated upon the blending of multiple story-lines, which typically revolve around a similar theme. They may share a unifying element, like the bellhop in Four Rooms (1995), or have totally separate narratives, as in Twilight Zone: The Movie, which uses a prologue and epilogue, but otherwise does not mix its stories in any manner. Characters may or may not recur across story-lines. In terms of authorship, you can find chapter films in which each segment has been written, directed and filmed by a different set of creative personnel, and others in which the same person wrote and directed all of the stories. Amongst modern filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino has been a major proponent of this type of structure. Pulp Fiction, on which he was the sole director, and Four Rooms, on which he served as one of four directors are clear examples. But he has expanded the genre in movies like the two Kill Bills (2003-2003) and Inglourious Basterds (2009),which employ chapters but still seem primarily concerned with the primary present-tense plot-line, and Reservoir Dogs (1992), which turns its extended flashback sequences into chapters in their own right. Of course, the current filmmaker most enamoured of the chapter structure is Jim Jarmusch, whose Night on Earth (1991) I consider to be the greatest movie made in this form. But I’ve written much about Jarmusch recently, so I’ll leave him in peace for now.
Damn right it’s hard. It’s hard enough to make up one good story. You try making up three or four or more. Then you have to find a way to blend them so that the audience can keep track of what is happening. You have to make sure they don’t become redundant. I know a lot of people like The Joy Luck Club (1993), but I’ve got to say, after about the third utterly tragic story, I began to tune out. When the linking voice-over says something like “It was terrible what happened (in the last story), but not nearly as bad as what I’m about to tell you…” I started to lose it (I should admit that’s not an exact quote from the movie – but it’s the way I remember it). Maybe the biggest challenge is balancing the many stories, because if one is a lot stronger than the others, the audience will resent the time spent away from it. I mean, I really like Mickey in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Fantasia (1940). So much so that the rest of the movie seems kind of boring to me.
But I think chapter films offer some advantages as well. First, feature films are an awkward length. The amount of story you can tell in a normal feature is significantly less than the amount you can tell in a novel, but somewhat more than what you can tell in short story. The easiest form of prose to adapt into a feature is a novella, and there are not all that many of them floating around out there. So working in the shorter form that the chapter film offers makes the transition from short story to movie narrative somewhat easier. But more importantly, the chapter film allows the filmmaker the chance to explore various aspects of a particular theme or question in greater detail than a normal feature does. In a normal feature, the narrative is largely tied to one or two characters – their goals, attitudes, and points of view. In a chapter film, there is really no limit to how many angles you can choose. Back to Tarantino for a moment. Some viewers think Pulp Fiction is all style and no substance. I would argue that it is, in fact, about something. The chapters are arranged to explore various aspects of violence – the build-up, the violent act itself, and the aftermath. I’m not saying the movie treats the subject matter in great depth. I’m just saying there is a method behind its structure.
Wow, that’s really interesting. Tell me, what is the best Chapter Film?
I already answered that. You weren’t paying attention.
OK. But you said something about naming several underrated ones?
That’s not exactly a question, but okay. Here are three (plus a few more throw-ins) that are worthy of attention.
Dead of Night (1945)
This delightfully evil piece of English horror is built around a framing story set in an isolated country house. Isn’t that just like an English horror? An invited guest (Mervyn Johns) is shocked to discover upon arrival that this is the very house and these are the very people about whom he has been dreaming. He fears something terrible will happen. An appropriately Eastern European doctor (Frederick Valk) is on hand to debunk any claims of the supernatural, which in turn prompts the other houseguests to share their own experiences with the spooky and the creepy. The stories range from comic (the Golfing Story) to terrifying (Ventriloquist’s Dummy). The movie was produced by Ealing, noted more for its deft comedies than horrors, and directing credits were shared by Basil Deardon, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, and Alberto Cavalcanti, who helmed the acclaimed Ventriloquist story, which has been highly influential on other horrors. If horror is your thing, you might also check out the original horror chapter film, Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and the marvellously fun Tales From the Crypt directed by Freddie Francis in 1972.
Six in Paris (1965)
Barbet Schroeder was just 24 when he convinced six noted French directors to come up with 15 minute films, each set in a different neighbourhood in Paris (note I am not using the French term arrondissement because it is too long). New camera technology allowed for much greater freedom in the way filmmakers worked on location, and this movie combined the leading lights of the French New Wave with the leading lights of the Cinema Verite movement to create something new and exciting. The directors, in order of their stories, were Jean Douchet, Jean Rouch, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. Aside from conveying that to be a director in France, you really want to be named “Jean,” these shorts paint a wonderful portrait of a vibrant city at a specific point in time. Most of the stories deal with love. Some are slight (Douchet), some are funny (Pollet), some are cynical (Godard), some are cruel (Chabrol). Rohmer gets credit for avoiding amour all together, and Rouch gets credit for making the best of the lot, an amazingly poignant and chilling glimpse of love and longing, featuring an extraordinary technical achievement that only a skilled documentarian could pull off. Six in Paris is sometimes referred to as a “city” film because its unifying element is the location. Other interesting city films include the uneven but worthwhile New York Stories (1989) from Messrs. Scorsese, Coppola, and Allen, and the recent Paris je t’aime (2006), the work of eighteen different directors (and Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, but we’re not talking about Jarmusch).
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)
The “one thing” is happiness, and Jill Sprecher’s deeply felt chapter film is far more effective than other better-known stabs at this subject. This is a different type of chapter film – one which uses thirteen titled chapters to tell the interlocking stories of a band of regular New Yorkers whose lives zig and zag and bang into each other at various moments. Think of it as a more understated Crash (2004). The fine acting ensemble, which features Alan Arkin, John Turturro, Matthew McConaughey, Clea Duvall, Amy Irving, and Barbara Sukowa, get plenty of room to explore the extremes of desperation and loneliness while maintaining a sense of whimsy which keeps potentially devastating material from getting too depressing. Sprecher, who has only directed three films in a seventeen-year career, is one of many women who deserve more exposure and opportunity. You might also check out Rebecca Miller’s anthology Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002). And while we’re in that general time period, there’s also Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), the at times riotously funny chapter film by a director who I’m not talking about in this essay (but his initials are J.J.).
So call them Portmanteaus if you must. But watch and enjoy. And relish the fact that you are getting a bargain. Five, six, thirteen stories for the price of one.