Short Stories: Anthologies in Film

Good things in small packages. "The Meaning of Life" and other anthology films deliver big ideas in short stories. Image via

This Friday, June 12th, Filmworks will be screening the Argentinian submission for Best Foreign Language Film,“Wild Tales”. Filmmaker Damián Szifron weaves together multiple tales of revenge that grow increasingly outrageous and hysterical as the film progresses, allowing for a wickedly funny take on modern society and manners. “Wild Tales” sets itself apart from many other movies by using an anthology approach to filmmaking, presenting six independent stories linked by a common ideas.  Each story stands on its own, but contributes to the overall message of the film.

Anthologies are an uncommon, but effective approach to storytelling in film. Directors have used this format to experiment with narrative by joining together genres, themes, and concepts while experimenting with narrative, character, and plot.  In many cases the anthology format has been used to introduce audiences to new types of media or performance not automatically associated with films. In preparation for “Wild Tales”, let’s take a look back at two very different films linked by the use of an anthology structure to introduce audiences to experimental storytelling and ideas.

Invitation to the Dance

Gene Kelly’s 1956 experimental dance film had a long and not entirely successful road to the screen. Conceived in 1952 as a way to educate American audiences about different dance forms and styles, Gene Kelly only intended to appear in one segment of “Invitation to the Dance” that highlighted popular music. The studio, already nervous about a dance anthology with no dialog, insisted their star appeared in each segment in prominent roles. Kelly would later admit his performances were uneven and not all of the stories were a good fit to his talents. In fact, the original segment he was to appear in was ultimately cut from the film.  What was left by the time the film was released 4 years later was by turns enchanting, madding, beautiful, and frustrating.

My favorite segment is the middle story about love and infidelity at a New York society party.  The high society theme mix perfectly with Kelly’s delicate footwork and signature soft shoe style. Starting the film is a pretty, if not terribly exciting, ballet about a traveling theater troupe. The third story of an American sailor who finds a magic lamp in a bazaar, is the technical standout of the three featuring an innovative animation technique that allowed Kelly to dance with imaginary characters and venture into a storybook world. Unfortunately, the story itself feels extremely dated and the choreography repetitive of other well-known Kelly routines audiences have already seen. Although “Invitation to the Dance” did not always meet its goals, it remains an ambitious example of the many forms that short storytelling can take in film.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Much like “Invitation to the Dance”, Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” used an anthology format to experiment with how a particular performance style could tell multiple stories.  Only this time the style wasn’t classical dance, it was absurdest sketch comedy.  The Monty Python group had already brought their unique and silly brand of humor to the movies with the “The Holy Grail” in 1975 and “Life of Brian” in 1979, but both of those movies told continuous stories in a more traditional, if very strange, way.  “The Meaning of Life” in 1983 returned to their sketch comedy roots to present several short comedy bits.

Like many anthology films, the stories in “The Meaning of Life” are connected through broad themes instead of characters or plot lines. While this method does connect the stories to each other, each sketch can (and should) be viewed on its own merit without any knowledge of the rest of the film. Bureaucracy, religion, and war are all targets of social satire as “The meaning of Life” asks what’s it all about anyway. Like “Invitation to the Dance”, this film dives into the unique parameters of an anthology film to experiment with storytelling from new angles and push the boundaries of what audiences can expect from a narrative.


Fae Giffen studies at San Jose State in the School of Library and Information Science graduate program. She serves on the Filmworks board, working on marketing and development.