Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Company

The Company is a weird project for Robert Altman to undertake: a ballet drama conceived entirely by actress Neve Campbell as a showcase for her own interest and background in dance. Campbell wrote the script with screenwriter Barbara Turner, and brought the film to Altman, who initially resisted but finally agreed to direct. It is an obvious vanity project, a film designed to showcase Campbell's involvement with dance; she'd been trained in ballet and revisited her training to prepare for this role. But instead of feeling like an indulgence, the film is moving and beautiful in capturing Campbell's obvious love for this milieu, and Altman's sympathetic, nuanced treatment fully supports the joy and beauty these dancers find in their work. This is a lovely tribute to the ballet, capturing the grandiose aesthetics and elaborate designs of these performances, which Altman filmed in full to gather the material for the film's dance sequences.

And make no mistake: this film exists almost entirely for the sake of its dance sequences. It's tempting to deem the film, which follows a ballet company through a single season, one of Altman's typical sprawling multi-character studies, capturing bits and pieces of various stories and characters backstage between dances. In fact, the film's narrative is Altmanesque only in superficial ways, in that it has many characters and that it doesn't have a real central narrative. Whereas Altman's Nashville and Short Cuts decentralized the narrative in order to follow many characters, observing fragments of their stories and developing them through vignettes rather than a plot with a real forward momentum, The Company all but eliminates plot and drama. Campbell's heroine Ry is the closest the film gets to a central character, but she doesn't really have much of a story: she wants to move up to a more prominent role in the company, she falls in love with a new guy after her dancer boyfriend cheats on her, and, well, that's about it. There are other miniature dramas here and there, too, some money worries, injuries, other little suggestions of the characters' pasts or concerns. Mostly, though, the plot is frictionless, designed not to distract too much from the dance performances; there's no drama, no character development, no real story at all. It's such a common criticism — and misunderstanding — of Altman's films that they have no plot, no narrative structure, so it's illuminating to see the difference here, to see what an Altman film without a true narrative would really be like.

It's in that sense that the film feels most like a vanity project: Ry is a character without real problems, and she meets and falls in love with a hunky sous chef named Josh (James Franco), and that's her story. It's pretty fluffy stuff, but Altman infuses this milieu with heft and substance through his serious, respectful treatment of this world and these performances. The dances, of course, are stunning, and Altman makes good use of the garish light and color in the design of the sets, costumes and choreography here. Many of the dances are opportunities for Altman's camera to roam through the complex patterns of colors and geometry that these dancers form with their bodies: the rigid computer circuit patterns formed with colored ribbons in the opening number, the riot of color and rapid movement in the animal-suited dancers of the finale, the three dancers evoking a multi-armed Hindu god by projecting their merged shadows onto a red screen.

A few dance sequences in particular are tours de force that really showcase Altman's intuitive feel for the grace and aesthetics of these dances. Ry's first moment in the spotlight is a dance at an outdoor venue where, just as she takes the stage for her pas de deux with a male dancer, a thunderstorm begins to threaten, with ominous rumbles of thunder and a harsh wind blowing debris and the first drops of rain through the air. The atmosphere is tense and hushed as Ry and her partner enact a sexy, sensual dance of seduction, the flashes of lightning occasionally lighting up their faces, the wind flowing over them, as the crowd mumbles and shifts nervously, a few umbrellas going up in the audience. It's so tense because one suspects that mainstay of backstage movies, the career-halting injury, could be waiting in the wings — and there are a few of those, scattered here and there in the film, reminders of the lineage from which this movie descends. But in this case, the thunderstorm simply enhances the mood of the dance, making it dangerous and haunting in ways it wouldn't have been otherwise.

Altman also seems to enjoy offering up a tribute to David Lynch, of all people, by including one dance sequence scored to "The World Spins," one of the songs Lynch and his composer Angelo Badalamenti wrote for avant-pop singer Julee Cruise. This sequence is appropriately ethereal, matching Cruise's lilting voice and the ambient melodicism of the music with cool blue hues and a ghostly dance enacted entirely on a low trapeze swing. Altman abstracts the dancer's movements by switching to an overhead shot in which the dancer's body is simply one element in a complex design of blue lights arranged on the floor. At other points, he films her blurry reflection in the glossy surface of the stage, or films her feet as she swings slowly back and forth, her outstretched toes just above the stage, swaying up and out of the frame, leaving behind a moment of black nothingness before her feet reappear as she swings back. It's poetic and mysterious, a perfect nod to Lynch.

Elsewhere, Altman enlivens the basic plotlessness of the non-dance sequences with some flashes of humor and vitality, particularly in the character of the company's domineering artistic director Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). Antonelli gets some of the best non-dance scenes in the film, delivering a speech to an Italian-American society in which, rather than being grateful for the award he just received, he castigates his own Italian family for mocking his dance ambitions when he was a kid. Implicit in his words is a warning to be more tolerant, especially since in another scene he laments all the great choreographers and dancers who have been lost to AIDs; it's implied that he's gay, and that this is very much a gay milieu. Probably Antonelli's funniest moment is an argument with a dancer who's protesting the ridiculous conception of a particular sequence for two male dancers. "This baby is a metaphor," Antonelli insists, spouting some elaborate patter about "giving birth to the world." The dancer isn't buying it: "he's a man, how's he gonna give birth?" It's hilarious, and one wishes there were more of this, more of the humor and messiness that so often exists around the fringes of an Altman film. Too much of this film is so tidy, so minimal. There are suggestions of characterization here and there — an older woman who wishes she could still dance, an aging member of the company fighting against getting pushed out herself, a young man with an aggressive manager — but none of it ever really amounts to anything.

Still, even if The Company isn't prime Altman, it's a well-made and frequently moving film in which the abstract emotional catharsis of the dance is placed at the center of the film, rather than all the backstage romances and troubles, which seem incidental in comparison. It's a film that takes joy in movement, both in the rehearsals, where a movement's development is traced and coached along, and in the polished shows themselves. This fascination with movement even extends outside of the dancing milieu, in shots like Ry getting out of the bath behind a screen, her silhouetted body later echoed by the multi-armed shadow of the male dancers, or Josh's legs waving in the air as he puts his pants on, or the elegance of the way he chops up peppers and tomatoes to make an omelet, or the crisp, mathematical motions of Ry as she shoots pool. These scenes suggest that beautiful human motion is everywhere, in everyday life and work as well as on a stage: chopping up peppers or shooting pool can be as beautiful as a pirouette. Even bowling can be beautiful: at one point Altman cleverly cuts from Ry and the other dancers practicing a move to a bowling lane where a dancer repeats virtually the same arm motion as she releases the ball, doing a twirl afterward. These small moments, rather than the prosaic, formulaic narrative beats, are the ones where Altman's presence is really felt.


Doniphon said...

Great post Ed, although I do think The Company is prime Altman, and my favorite of his 00's output. The dance in the rain is just too moving, one of those truly incredible moments. I'm not really sure what you mean when you say it's a vanity project (by the same token, is 3 Women then a vanity project of Altman's?), but I really like how you differentiate The Company from his other output of the time, which is significantly narrative-based. But I think that's what makes it so great, and Altman's poetic hand can really be felt everywhere. I love that one moment in which Altman cuts from Franco looking at Campbell in the bar to his feet rising in the air in her apartment. He's still deciding what to hide and what to show.

Ed Howard said...

Perhaps I was too dismissive of the film's origin as a "vanity project," but I mainly meant that these kinds of projects are very often embarassing, betraying their origins as flimsy excuses for an actor to showcase some passion he or she has. A lot of these kinds of films aren't developed far beyond "I want to make a movie about dancing!" In contrast, though the plot of The Company is undoubtedly weak and the lack of any kind of drama or conflict occasionally makes it a bit too saccharine, this is a rich, rewarding film that goes far beyond a simple excuse to allow Campbell to dance on screen. As you say, there's poetry and grace in the way Altman films motion here, whether it's the actual dances or the more prosaic everyday activities like cutting peppers or getting up out of bed after sex.

And the dance in the thunderstorm is overwhelming in its intensity.

Unknown said...

I'm ashamed to say as a big Altman fan I have yet to see this film. Came close a few times but the subject didn't appeal to me but I have to say your review has piqued my curiosity and I really would like to check this out.

I always felt that Altman was the master at observing and chronicling human behavior in its various forms and this film sounds like a continuation of that preoccupation.

Excellent review!

Sam Juliano said...

"Still, even if The Company isn't prime Altman, it's a well-made and frequently moving film in which the abstract emotional catharsis of the dance is placed at the center of the film, rather than all the backstage romances and troubles, which seem incidental in comparison. It's a film that takes joy in movement, both in the rehearsals, where a movement's development is traced and coached along, and in the polished shows themselves."

This is the most vital assertion here, and the specific observations throughout the essay are marvelous. It is abundantly clear that Altman loves dance as much as Scorsese (and even Powell and Pressberger) love opera, and this 'artistic exhilaration' is woven into the film's fabric, rendering all the other concerns - as you note - as incidental. I do in fact agree with Donophon that it's prime new millenium Altman, and a recent viewing at the Film Forum of Frederick Wiseman's LA DANSE reminded me yet again what an underappreciated artistic form dance really is.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh I LOVE this late Altman. It's pure mise en scene, and remindful of why Rivette likes Altman so much. it would make a great double-feature with Noroit.

The "My Funny Valentine" sequence with a storm breaking out as Neve goes into her number on stage is a directorial tour de force. I can't think of another filmmaker capable of hamdling such a complex interplay between stage and audience, so exquisitely.

And James Franco as the sous-chef in love with Neve shows why he's capable of charming the birds right off the trees.

Ed Howard said...

J.D., honestly, the subject doesn't appeal to me much either; I've never been a big fan of dance of any kind and know very little about it. I saw this only because Altman made it, one of those side effects of auteurism when a director I'm interested in makes a film that I otherwise probably would've never thought about seeing. In this case, I'm very glad I did, because even if I don't rank it as highly as some apparently do, it's very much worth seeing.

Sam, what's interesting is that other than this film, I've never seen any indication that Altman does love dance. I think, more than dance specifically, he loves movement, and Campbell's love of dance here gave Altman a perfect opportunity to explore the movement that happens in these characters' lives both on stage and off. It's the same sense of motion that I feel in Altman's bobbing-and-weaving camera in crowd scenes in films like Gosford Park or A Wedding.

David, Rivette seems like a strangely perfect comparison point, especially the dance sequences in Noroit. And agreed that the storm sequence is a highlight, with some masterful editing in cutting between the suspended time of the stage and the reactions of the audience.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I met Altman at a screening of Mike Hodges' (great, neglected) I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. He told me he wanted to do The Company because "I know NOTHING about ballet -- and there are all these pretty girls!"

Craig said...

I'm very fond of this film as well. As you indicated, it's easy to imagine the vanity project (or the forgotten dud) that it could have become in the hands of a lesser director. Yet the fact that Neve Campbell specifically sought out Altman shows her willingness to subvert her ego, and that she's smarter than she's typically given credit for. She offers some interesting and amusing anecdotes of how The Company came to be in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography.

And, yes, the dance sequences are marvelous. Choreographed like a pro and without a fuss by Altman, as usual.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Craig. Another reminder that I really have to read The Oral Biography, which sounds fascinating.