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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 02:15 pm

Hyperlink movies

Breaking up the narrative is hard to do well

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The late, great Robert Altman, pioneer of Hyperlink movies, with Paul Newman.

Babel completes Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trilogy of fate. His global thriller towers over Amores Perros (2000), but it falls short of the emotional power of 21 Grams (2003). Perhaps spreading the canvas over three continents diminished its impact. The hyperlink form he uses breaks the narrative into smaller separate stories that link up in different ways. Hyperlink movies have become more common in recent years, but the concept is hardly new. Robert Altman pioneered the form with Nashville (1975), a classic film that has lost none of its brilliance in 30-plus years. Altman returned to the tricky format with Short Cuts (1993), a film dubbed the “L.A. Nashville.” Here he weaves together several Raymond Carver short stories into one epic tapestry. Each story is so compelling on its own that any one of them could be the basis for a great film, but linking them together creates a cinematic miracle. Altman masterfully juggles the 22 primary characters with his extraordinary ensemble cast. Short Cuts is one for the ages. Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) has often been called an Altman disciple without the misanthropy. Magnolia (1999), his answer to Short Cuts, comes much closer to his inspiration than anyone could have expected. Anderson pares down the number of main characters to nine, but he retains the mammoth three-hour length for his own study of LA. Each character relates, directly or indirectly, to a quiz show titled What Do Kids Know? An almost unrelenting feeling of despair leads to one of the most unforgettable climaxes imaginable.

A body falling from a bridge onto a passing car is just one of several bizarre incidents that occur in the 20-minute time span of 11:14 (2003). Multiple viewpoints allow the short period to be stretched into feature length. Stories occur simultaneously, and certain incidents are shown from different angles and vantage points. The humor, very dark, predictability flies out the window in this obscure gem. Heights (2004) purports to highlight a pivotal day in the lives of five New Yorkers who must make life-altering decisions, but reaching that level of importance is beyond its capabilities. Five flat short stories fused together equal one pretentious movie. At the core is a stereotypical troubled mother-daughter relationship, with Glenn Close in one of her patented domineering-woman roles. I’ve already covered the two best recent hyperlink movies, 21 Grams and Crash (2004) in previous columns, but they deserve another mention.

New on DVD next Tuesday (Nov. 28): The Ant Bully and Clerks II.

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