This list is inspired by my recent viewing of Valentine's Day, featuring an impressive number of character threads, intersecting in meaningful, inconsequential, and contrived ways. There is a theme (Los Angeles on Valentine's Day), but no plot, and as far as I can tell, no thesis. And that's okay; most movies have a singular plot and few main characters, so it's only fair (and healthy for our minds) that at least a few movies deviate from this.
The interwoven vignette is much like a typical television show. Most shows I've seen, unless geographically compressed (e.g. all characters are aboard the Starship Voyager), quickly unravel into competing and unrelated narratives. If the show is about characters, rather than events, then we must check in with each character each episode. It takes a talented writing and directing staff to use a large cast in a single meaningful scene (Heroes, which is horrible at this, no longer even tries; episodes alternate between two sets of unrelated plots, each continued two episodes later). Because this is so difficult, shows typically divide into micro-dramas. While the doctor is in the emergency room performing brain surgery, her husband is at the law office battling alcoholism, and their son is in the Principal's office for fighting with a bully (notice that our main kid never is the bully), and the young ER nurse, so full of promise, just rear-ended someone on the way to work. Personally, I actually dislike this format. It seems like a trick to fill the air time. When I consider an individual thread, I realize that for a forty-five minute show, very little actually happened. If I care about a character, I want them to accomplish more in forty-five minutes than taking a trip to the bar at lunchtime. Thus, I gravitate toward plot-centric shows, where characters appear and disappear as needed for the plot. I want my characters to be part of a team, united (onscreen) for a common goal. What they do in the off hours is their business.
But what I loathe in television I yearn for in movies, which are typically very conservative in what they try to accomplish for their characters. Movies are like pinball machines; we're meant to keep our eye on the ever-moving ball (the main character) as it bounces around and interacts with various reactive surfaces (other characters), each of which serves only to keep the ball moving along. (Clue, Cinema's Gift to Will, cuts out or kills all of its inconsequential characters, leaving us with just seven equally developed personalities.) Only the main characters is afforded any depth.
Though Valentine's Day does not attempt this, I envision the true merit of this sub-genre (i.e. of interwoven vignettes) as a method of instructing empathy. In most movies, I identify with the film's protagonist. This fleeting identification with someone else nonetheless does not expand my consciousness, because this structure preserves the conflict of one-versus-all. Interwoven vignettes, however, are capable of disassociating the viewer from a protagonist, rather making us sympathize with several competing points of view, each legitimate to that perspective's own champion. Though most of us are the main characters in our own personal dramas, we are well reminded that everyone feels this way, about themselves.
Below are ten films with no main character, and no central plot. Each character goes about their business, and we flit around from person to person, seeing what they're up to, and generally trying to figure out how they are all interrelated.
(The film would be terribly disappointing if the seemingly unrelated stories were actually unrelated. I once read a Star Wars expanded universe trilogy like this; each novel was divided into three sections, each following a different groups of characters on a quest. Eventually Luke's quest intersected with that of Leia, Han, and Chewbacca. But Lando, R2-D2, and C-3PO? No, their story had nothing to do with the other two, and thus could have been its own stand-alone book.)
10. Short Cuts (1993)
Robert Altman's now-classic film has an impressive twenty-two people sharing top billing. If you were living in Los Angeles when this film was made, chances are you've been credited. This is the quintessential example of interwoven narratives, with roughly ten different stories unfolding over the course of just a few days. These mostly unrelated tales are synched up by a gimmicky earthquake that does little but remind us of the simultaneity of the narratives. We have Altman to thank for the genre, but also for its imperfections. The more overt imitators—Playing by Heart (1998), Magnolia (1999), Sidewalks of New York (2001), Crash (2005), Valentine's Day (2010)—all feel fractured, as does Short Cuts. The viewer is constantly reminded, by the disconnected threads, that we are being subjected to a cinematic contrivance.
9. Deep Impact (1998)
I'm kidding, right? Sorry, but no. First, when contrasted to Armageddon, from the same year, Deep Impact is practically watchable. Second, the film uses a plot-centric gimmick (an asteroid about to strike Earth) to examine human desperation. Superficially, I'll admit. But we end up with four stories, each examining a reaction to imminent apocalypse. Predictably, one of those stories is about a team in space trying to destroy the asteroid before it reaches us. But there are three other threads that are powerless to stop the asteroid. We have the President taking the macro view of how (American) life and culture will endure, after the impact. Two families struggle to get into a shelter. Finally, a daughter and her parents are each resigned to not surviving. This movie isn't great, but moreso than Short Cuts and its imitators it manages to tell many stories under the illusion of unity.
8. Love Actually (2003)
I praised this film a bit here. It's so good natured it might make you puke. "London at Christmas" isn't much more to go on than "Los Angeles on Valentine's Day", but it manages to succeed nonetheless. The stories are only loosely related. We're left to mostly infer Colin Firth's relationship to the rest, and the rock stars are entirely disconnected except for appearing on televisions and radios throughout the movie. Other than a preponderance of beauty I really don't know why this film works; it feels like a Saturday Morning Special about loving thy neighbor. But it works.
7. Southland Tales (2007)
Quite possibly this strange story was intended to have a central plot and character, but if so, I couldn't tell. Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Geller, and several others rush around near-future Los Angeles, some trying to uncover a government conspiracy about a missing soldier, others just trying to get ahead in the entertainment business. We're left with a surreal story where each character's motivations seem at odds with their reality, and we're neither sure what to believe nor who to root for. Justin Timberlake does a song and dance that is incredibly entertaining.
6. Intermission (2004)
Set in and around Dublin, this movie ties together its various threads with personal relationships, but also with chance encounters (e.g. character A infuriates character B, who takes it out on the next person he sees, character C). Cillian Murphy, in a bizarrely misguided romantic gesture, kidnaps his own girlfriend, Kelly Macdonald, to make her fall for him again. One of his cohorts, Colin Farrell, is constantly at odds with celebrity lawman Colm Meaney, and Macdonald's sister, Shirley Henderson, has her own strange encounters with men who express their affection and disdain for her in revolting ways. The movie shows some sex bias, turning all of its men into scoundrels, and its women into saints, but everyone is interesting to watch, and finds some satisfying catharsis by the end.
5. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
On its surface, this wonderfully low-key film doesn't seem to fit on this list, because it is clearly about the awkward romance between shoe salesman John Hawkes and visual artist Miranda July, who provides a taxi service for the elderly as her day job. But the movie is very loose about focusing on these two, and ultimately drifts to the periphery, where we become absorbed in the dramas of Hawkes's two children and three neighbors, as well as a curator to whom July has submitted her latest work of performance art. Here's a test most movies would fail: if the protagonist's friend/parent/co-worker were in a scene all by themself, would the scene still be interesting? In most movies, these add-on characters serve as mere sounding boards for the hero and are therefore inconsequential to the plot. (Thinking of recent films, I'm reminded of It's Complicated, where Meryl Streep's three girlfriends exist only to give Streep an excuse to face the camera and tell us what she's thinking.) In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the eponymous Everyone are just as interesting and as real as the ostensible leads, and so the movie doesn't feel like a story; it feels like life.
4. Go (1999)
Three competing narratives swirl around a raucous night off from work and a drug deal gone semi-sour. Check-out clerks Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley are among those involved, as are their friends, some actors, and various shady characters. This is one of those movies where we often see the same event from two angles, giving the viewer an appreciable full picture of something that seems random to each of the characters involved, because of their limited perspectives.
3. Four Rooms (1995)
Four stories, by four writer/directors, share a creepy hotel as their common location. A strange bellhop, Tim Roth, unifies the stories through his involvement with each. I wouldn't quite call the movie entertaining, but it is fun to see how stories intersect each other. Despite being told one after the other, they occur simultaneously, and there are slight spillovers from one to another that are only sensible after having seen both involved tales (e.g. two sides to a wrong number phone call are split between two narratives). One segment in particular features one of the most disgusting sight gags I've ever actually laughed at.
2. Timecode (2000)
Four camera angles divide the screen into a grid of simultaneous perspectives. Characters are not loyal to any particular perspective, nor is a camera dedicated to any one location. The film feels like four competing "day in the life of" documentaries, except there is no consistency to the subjects or their plots. Much of the movie is improvised, following around various Hollywood figures (actors, producers, directors, etc.), and watching them flirt and fight with each other. The film uses unscripted dead spots (and audio tricks) to force our attention to more important events in a particular corner of the screen. Watching this movie is a bit like being a security guard at a mall, monitoring several closed-circuit surveillance systems at once, trying to derive meaning from a barrage of images. Part of what makes this movie so interesting is that even when a character is alone, we are not alone with that character. With our attention always divided, we are working against the movie to obtain any sort of intimacy with the characters. The movie doesn't seem to care who we like, or even what we watch. This is a bit annoying and pretentious, but it's also fun, especially when camera angles converge, showing the same characters from different directions.
1. Gosford Park (2001)
First, before you protest, remember that any list with a positive connotation should be topped with Gosford Park. That's just good sense. Second, there really is no plot to the movie, other than "a bunch of people at a mansion for the weekend". The murder mystery aspect is a bit of a ploy, and I don't think it is intended to command our attention. Rather, we are meant to watch with fascination the interactions between the upstairs and the downstairs, how the slightest glance or comment can be pregnant with meaning. For the most part the movie does not obscure how characters are related to each other, as others in the genre do; instead, this obscurity is accomplished through shear numbers of characters: more than forty characters are named and have recurring speaking roles. Thematically, "mansion culture" is the film's topic, and it delivers in spades. Every turn of the camera finds an interesting character, usually "nobody", going about their business, and it's just as interesting to follow them into the pantry as to follow an aristocrat into the parlor.