Altman has documented the peculiar peccadilloes of the flaky bourgeoisie in A Wedding and country music (Nashville), the grand hijinks of well-to-do Texans (Dr. T & the Women) and loopy Southerners in Cookie's Fortune. His sense of truth mixes outrageously with the patent artifice of his situations, which tend toward the extreme.
The Company shows Altman again assuming the status of a tall tale-telling Frederick Wiseman as he dissects his chosen institution, this time a professional ballet company.
The film is set within the world of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet amid a corps of genuine ballerinas, and a sprinkling of ersatz Hollywood ones. Neve Campbell is one of the imports. A dancer since childhood, Campbell dances her heart out in a memorable pas de deux done in Chicago's Grant Park. Talented though she is, she lacks the unmistakable, exquisite poise of real ballerinas, who carry that regal attitude and unflappable bearing from stage to real life without a break. Ballerinas' career-altered bodies -- the May pole posture, the elongated necks -- do not come off with the tutus and makeup. Campbell's own lean but differently carried weight makes it harder to accept her as one of the dancers.
In The Company, Ry (Campbell) is one of dozens of anxious dancers in the corps hoping for a break. It is an indication of Altman's open-ended style that the film, thankfully, never works toward some triumphant performance for Ry, but instead shows that the dancer's life is one of waiting and hoping for a shot that may never come.
The disasters in The Company tend to harken back to the quieter, subtler tragedies of Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller than to the hyperbolic hysteria of more recent episodes such as the earthquake in Short Cuts. Altman shows dancers dealing with injury, strokes of good luck and bad, classes and outsize theatrical attitudes -- all the difficulties endured for the brief aphrodisiac of moments onstage.
And Altman presents plenty of those moments, including a striking opening dance production that looks like a translation of Metropolis for the stage, made up of robotic movement and the pings and blips of a jerky electronic score. The dance numbers boast the same you-are-there vantage as the rest of the film. Altman gets in close enough so that we can hear the toe shoes on wood floors. It's a humble assertion of real, human labor being done beneath the ethereal screen of music.
The best moments in The Company are those where Altman moves in tight to allow a nosey vantage behind the elegant, poised machinations onstage. In these fragments of the ballerinas' day-to-day lives, the dancers move chaotically like teenagers in a high school corridor or sleep sprawled all over the floor in crowded apartments.
The dancers both fear and adore their paternal leader, the gruff, flamboyant artistic director Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). He commands his troupe with a mix of assurance and the brash, nonsensical recklessness of Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.
The eccentricities, the attitudes, the temperamental, slightly nutty artists who are the staples of such showbizzy dramas collide with Altman's demonstration, in far-too-brief moments, of the technicalities of this business: the slow, miniscule detail work logged in practice rooms that somehow results in the all-out ballets we watch onstage.
Full-blown and ludicrous at times, much of The Company's action centers around the production of "The Blue Snake," a wacky Cirque de Soleil-meets-blotter acid affair directed by an earnestly kooky Canadian choreographer. The dancers wear purple and yellow animal costumes, and there's even a giant fog-spewing head onstage. You pity the dancers being recruited for such goofiness, even as Altman shows that the drive to dance tends to overshadow such questionable creative ventures. Altman demonstrates how these dancers, forced to perform in oddball ballets, are the human equivalent of paint on an artist's palette: the choreographer's malleable, human medium.
Altman's best films, such as Nashville and Gosford Park, managed to craft individual insights and vignettes into a powerful whole that gives a true flavor for a certain milieu. But in The Company, Altman never rises above a rambling, sloppy composite impression of a company, of a whole made up of tiny particles that never get the cinematic attention they deserve. Altman introduces some interesting characters and narrative threads, but then casts them to the wind when they threaten to draw attention away from the company as a unit. Though emphasis on the group is certainly part of Altman's point in The Company, it also makes for a less satisfying film, having sacrificed narrative potential to serve a larger message about the organic, cohesive nature of a close-knit creative community.
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