“The Company”

Robert Altman's surpassingly beautiful ballet movie feels lighter than air -- but in fact it's the great director's most tender and memorable film in years.

Topics: James Franco, Movies,

"The Company"

Robert Altman has been moving large casts of characters smoothly through his movies and orchestrating passages of overlapping dialogue for so long now that he has often seemed as much choreographer as director. So it’s fitting that he’s gotten around to making a dance movie. “The Company,” filmed with members of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, must be the least flossy movie ever made about the world of dance. Ballet and modern dance haven’t been particularly well served by the movies. There was Carroll Ballard’s film of the Maurice Sendak-designed “Nutcracker,” but mostly there are fragments: the Roland Petit ballet that opened “White Nights,” and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines’ Twyla Tharp-choreographed duet in the same movie; and the few precious moments of Baryshnikov dancing in the otherwise appalling “The Turning Point.”

That stinker was pretty typical of the way the movies have always approached high art — with genuflection and blandishments about the discipline and sacrifice to which the artiste must submit. Who needs it? I’d have traded all of it for the moment from the 2000 “Center Stage” where the statuesque Zoe Saldana uses the point of her toe shoes to stub out a cigarette. That image from a throwaway teen movie was connected to the details of real life in a way that movies about art rarely are. Who the hell can appreciate any art if you’re made to feel that becoming an artist is joining the priesthood?

“The Company” has no more time for preachments about the nunnery of “the dahnce” than Altman’s “Vincent and Theo” had for preachments about the priesthood of art. “The Company” isn’t fevered and tortured the way “Vincent and Theo” was. It isn’t about the agony of making art but about the pleasure of it. In this case, that pleasure is inseparable from the nearly sexual excitement of young people finding out what amazing things their bodies are capable of. Altman’s movie is lighter than air, but it’s also one of the most fluid expressions of his technique. You could say that it’s all grace notes, but I prefer the description of my Salon colleague Stephanie Zacharek, that it’s all pulses. A choreographer distills everything to movement; Altman distills the meaning of “The Company” to the movement.

Altman has never had any use for the theatrical method of introducing movie characters. It isn’t surprising that he has no use for the conventions of backstage drama. The familiar plot strands in Barbara Turner’s script — the overbearing stage mother of a promising dancer, the young male dancer whose pushy mentor is jeopardizing his career, another young dancer who’s shuttling from one crash pad to another — are deliberately introduced so they can be left dangling. In conventional terms, nothing happens in “The Company.” We watch the young dancers of the Joffrey rehearse, get picked (or not) for performance, fall in love, injure themselves, deal with their families, work their part-time jobs.

When a dancer snaps a tendon demonstrating a move in rehearsal, Altman doesn’t do what another director would, shifting the scene to the hospital while the company breathlessly awaits news of her condition. The girl is taken away to be cared for, her replacement is chosen and rehearsals continue. That’s the reality of a dance company, not some ballet equivalent of “42nd Street.” Nothing happens in “The Company,” but only if you consider a master director’s ability to put life on-screen nothing. At moments “The Company” recalls the work of the French director Jacques Rivette, whose long, seemingly inconsequential movies give the great gift of allowing audiences to live in, and savor, each moment.

Altman has always been a weird mix of humanism and cynicism. For all his ability to plumb the contradictions of his characters, he’s always been susceptible to the caricatures of the adolescent wiseass. He hits a jarring note here in the scene where a dancer relates an anecdote about a relative’s recent suicide, but for the most part “The Company” is one of the most celebratory movies he’s ever made. Altman seems completely seduced by the young dancers on-screen. How could he not be? At 78 he’s still working with an eagerness and vigor most filmmakers never attain. In the director’s statement accompanying the press kit, Altman says, “On a daily basis and in the most impossible and dramatic terms, dancers face what we all face: biological clocks and the force of gravity telling us NO. Yet for some part of their working lives dancers literally prevail over those forces. The fact that they (like the rest of us) will all ultimately be trumped by time doesn’t diminish or compromise their efforts.”

For years now Altman has prevailed over not just his own biological clock but the forces that want to ground any independent-minded director working in American movies. Somehow, maybe through sheer stubbornness, he’s kept making movies his way. Even at its most hit-and-miss, his career represents one of the least compromised that any major filmmaker has ever managed in this country.

One of Altman’s tricks has been to deceive us with characters who seem like utter fools (like Geraldine Chaplin in “Nashville”) only to have them say things that are anything but foolish. Here, as the director of the Joffrey, Malcolm McDowell spouts arty little pensées. He’s the essence of every “resident genius” coasting on his associations and the showy panache of his dedication to art. This is one of those guys who knew just everyone (you expect him to talk about taking tea with Pavlova), who keeps his underlings at his beck and call and slyly hands them all the problems that arise, all the while insisting that he’s the man in charge.

He seems to have no idea of the nuts and bolts of a performance, always swooping in to change bits and pieces of a dance, no matter that the clock is ticking and the movements have to be set. (I attended a college with a fairly renowned dance department, and the head of the department was always wandering into rehearsals a night or two before opening, insisting on lighting changes.) It’s a hilarious caricature. But at the end of one of his speeches — the old saw about how young people today can’t understand what the ’60s were really like — he says, “Thinking the movement is not becoming the movement.”

That could be a summation of the way Altman has always gambled on instinct — even here, in the midst of a movie about one of the most disciplined of arts. Altman knows when not to interfere. He allows us to observe rehearsals, the painstaking process by which phrases of movement cohere into a dance. And then, just as his movies have always done, he erases all the evidence of that work with the seeming effortlessness of the final product.

The dance sequences in “The Company” are among the most dazzling ever put on film. Altman and his cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, allow us to experience each performance from both sides of the footlights, to both watch the movement and be in it. The film opens with Alwin Nikolais’ “Tensile Movement,” in which the dancers move among ribbons strung out across the stage and then dance in perfect synchronization with large elastic bands framing their four splayed limbs, changing size and shape to correspond to their movements. The film ends with Robert Desrosiers’ “Blue Snake,” a silly, storybook extravaganza with bright colors that are pretty to look at, though the visual clutter tends to upstage the dancers.

It’s a slight miscalculation because, dancewise, the movie reaches its peak midway through with the Lar Lubovitch pas de deux to Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” played on piano and cello by Marvin Laird and Clay Ruede and danced by Neve Campbell and Joffrey dancer Domingo Rubio. I don’t think it’s too much to say that this is one of the most surpassingly romantic sequences ever put on film. Every cliché you’ve ever heard about dance being a metaphor for sublimated lovemaking might have been invented to talk about this scene.

To the accompaniment of what must be the most achingly melancholy of American standards (Altman uses different versions of the song throughout the movie, in somewhat the same way he used different versions of John Williams’ theme in “The Long Goodbye”), Campbell and Rubio play out a scenario of seduction and rapture and heartache in movements that are as simple and suffused with feeling as Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are. Dance, along with music and movies, is the most ephemeral of forms, and you can’t help thinking of the longing that great vocalists have put into the line “Stay, little valentine, stay,” as you watch the exquisite and all too fleeting beauty of this dance. Altman heightens the drama of this outdoor performance by adding the rumbling of a looming thunderstorm. It’s as if God couldn’t abide this moment of human perfection without adding His own complementary touch.

Altman gives this sequence the perfect coda, cutting between Rubio rehearsing alone in the studio and Campbell’s Ry returning to her apartment and crying — who knows why? Maybe because her moment of triumph is over. Whatever the reason is, Altman doesn’t spell it out. What registers in the scene is seeing each dancer alone after the union they achieved onstage. The conception and editing of the sequence (by Geraldine Peroni) suggest the sequence in Jean Vigo’s film “L’Atalante” where the separated newlyweds dream of embracing each other in their sleep.

Neve Campbell had previous dance experience and trained with the Joffrey for this role. She also wrote the film’s story with Barbara Turner and is one of the producers. After her fine performances in “The Craft,” “Wild Things” and “Panic,” it shouldn’t still be necessary to defend Campbell as an actress, but there are plenty of people, some of them critics, who still regard her as a “TV actress” or a teen idol. (You run into the same thing with Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes.) Campbell is no more the star here than anyone else (the title of the movie is, after all, “The Company”).

She fits as beautifully into Altman’s ensemble as she does among the Joffrey dancers. Her solo in “Blue Snake” is the one moment in the ballet where we’re not distracted from the dancing by the design elements. Ry is the focus of the movie’s preoccupation with the beauty of youth, and that particular look of Campbell’s, her air of bruised expectancy, adds a touching element to the film’s casual lightness. Altman doesn’t use Ry, who works as a bartender in the off-season, to illustrate the difficulty of a dancer’s life — probably because at her age, having a crappy part-time job is part of what being an artist is all about. The bloom of youth is the same thing here as the bloom of creativity, the excitement of being on your own and making your own friends and choices.

There’s a funny moment when a dancer who rents out space on the floor of her cramped apartment to other dancers who need places to crash goes creeping among the sleeping bodies in her living room, trying to solicit a spare condom. The lives of the dancers look pretty good to Altman, even with the disappointments and injuries, because they have the freedom to work. The struggles will come later; Altman lets them relish their ambition.

He’s just as affectionate in his treatment of young love. Ry’s involvement with Josh (James Franco), a young man she meets in a bar, is sketched in a series of seemingly tossed-off scenes that capture their comfortable intimacy. We don’t see much more than the two of them watching TV or making breakfast or Ry coming home late from her bartending job to find Josh sacked out on the couch after preparing her a surprise New Year’s Eve dinner. Here, as elsewhere in the movie, by showing us the textures of these lives instead of just the drama, Altman has made a very evocative movie. It’s not until after you’ve seen it that the substance in the movie’s lightness becomes apparent.

It’s one of the mysteries of movies that directors sometimes express more of themselves and more of the themes that preoccupy them in what seems like their lightest movies. Howard Hawks never went deeper into the camaraderie of makeshift communities than he did in “Rio Bravo” and “Hatari!”; George Cukor gave the most polished demonstration of his casual elegance in “Pat and Mike”; Woody Allen finally made the serious comedy about love and death he had always wanted to in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

“The Company” feels as light as those movies, even though it’s the flip side to Altman’s most turbulent film, “Vincent and Theo,” which was about the agonies of the artist who defies commerce. “The Company” is about the glories of the artists who defy time. The dancers in “The Company” achieve what the racehorses in “Seabiscuit” failed to — they express the astonishing poignancy of creatures whose strength and fragility are inseparable.

Altman, who has defied time more than any filmmaker can be expected to, is in total harmony with them. The measure of that harmony is in the recurring motif of the love affair between Campbell and Franco: The sight of the two of them mouthing to each other across crowded rooms. For a director who has always delighted in the babble of overlapping dialogue, it must have been a pleasure to find two characters who can communicate above the surrounding din.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>