Archive for March, 2004

a note on the company

Wednesday, March 31st, 2004

“I am the Golux,   
the only Golux in the world,   
and not a mere Device.”

Well, Robert Altman makes hit movies and Golux movies. The former win awards, and make him — loopy politics and all — the toast of the town for a season. Each of the latter is pretty much the only one in the world, and each tends, like the Golux, to vanish instantly; but they are worth paying attention to if one has any desire to know why so many of the best and brightest actors around will drop everything — including their fees — to work with Altman. They’re far from commercial successes, and only Altman can get away with making so many of them. And they’re impossible to assess in any ordinary terms, because even if the beard is describable, the hat most certainly is not.

Mr Altman’s collaboration with Neve Campbell, The company, has pretty much come and gone in a matter of weeks and left no ripple. Sony appears to have decided it was a non-starter ages ago — they couldn’t even be bothered to finish the web site in time for its opening, nor, for that matter, before it closed — which is particularly bizarre in that the movie is by far the best showcase yet for Sony’s high definition digital video. Right they were, of course, that its audience would be limited — anyone could see that a mile away. But the lack of “marketing” support was sadly obvious, near-complete, and to my mind shameful.

The company will no doubt be a happily steady, but respectably minor, seller on DVD, and I’ll certainly look forward to picking up a copy. But those of us who were fortunate enough to have caught it on the big screen, where it truly belongs, are a small but happy lot. Mr Altman and Ms Campbell did not make a masterpiece, but what they made is dependably indescribable, and quite wonderful.

Unfortunately, The company inspired only blank incomprehension in some whose obligation is either to fight their way past incomprehension, or to quit their jobs and find some honest way to make a living, viz. some “critics.” It wasn’t all bad; readers of the New York Times, for instance, got a splendid essay by Anna Kisselgoff entitled “Robert Altman Gets Ballet Right.” But my home paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, predictably printed a “review” by one Ruthe Stein that was so full of misinformation that one wonders if Heuwell Tircuit put her up to it.

For example, the statement — weasel-worded with “allegedly” by Ms Stein — that a relatively normal screenplay was “left on the cutting room floor” while Altman let more and more of the dance footage usurp the running time (thus rendering the plot ever more elliptical in his trademark style), is easily falsifiable simply by consulting published interviews with the principals. The screenplay, in fact, was written so much with the elliptical Altman style in mind that Altman himself found it too hard to follow, and he initially declined to take it on. It was Ms Campbell’s passion for the project, and the advocacy of her co-screenwriter Barbara Turner (an Altman collaborator since the ’50s) that convinced him to do the picture.

Ms Stein reports a number of plot points so inaccurately, in fact, that no one who actually saw the movie could escape the conclusion that she must have fallen asleep midway through it. She lambastes a scene at one character’s apartment, for example, as being completely unconnected with the rest of the plot; “To the best of my knowledge,” she writes, “these people never reappear in the movie. So why are they in it at all?” Never mind that one of “these people” is in many scenes at the ballet company’s office, and the very brief apartment scenes (yes, dear, there is a second scene at the same apartment) do more than establish her unofficial function as the company’s temporary housing provider along with her official factotum duties: they bring us into contact with this crash-pad side of the young artists’ lives more deftly and more vividly than most documentarians could in a whole reel.

(Indeed, if you read through the postings about The company on any large-scale movie forum like IMDb, you’ll find, amid the usual barely literate screeds and self-important Critic-In-Training postings, quite a few thoughtful words from dancers, most of whom say that Altman did indeed get ballet right, and righter than anyone ever has before.)

I wouldn’t recommend The company to a broad audience without many qualifications; indeed, I have not recommended it to my closest friends without many qualifications. But as I’m not, fortunately, a critic, I’m content to point out just a couple of the delights this curious movie has to offer, and commend it to your attention, in the hope you’ll have an opportunity to discover its many other delights without coming after me to get your nine bucks back.

Altman filmed ten complete ballets with multiple cameras — on high-definition video rather than film — and is generous indeed with the footage. Whether or not the modest plot holds any interest for you, I can guarantee that you have never seen filmed dance so thoroughly mesmerizing as what Altman has captured of the Joffrey.

Several of the company’s classics are seen in whole or in part, including Alwin Nikolais’s landmark “Tensile Involvement” (through which the opening titles weave as part of the dance), Gerald Arpino’s “Suite Saint-Saëns,” “Trinity,” and “Light Rain,” and Laura Dean’s “Creative Force.”

Most miraculous of them all is the deeply moving “The White Widow” — a solo dancer, a loop of rope, and Julee Cruise singing “The World Spins” (Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks music with David Lynch lyrics). The choreography for the camera is as rich as Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn’s is for the dancer, with the same economy of means: an overhead view here, a long look into blinding stage lighting there, but for the most part the camera simply gazes at the dance from a few angles and distances, letting us see everything from the duct tape & scuffs on the gouged stage and the heavy mechanics above — the dingy ordinariness of the means of producing the vision — to the essence of the vision itself, languid, wistful, bowed down, ecstatic, resigned, and, at the last, at once tragically earthbound and soaring in eternity.

We get to watch two very different choreographers at work, Lar Lubovich rehearsing his aching “My Funny Valentine” (and coming across as the gentle but impossibly demanding boss you’d give anything to work for), and Robert Desrosiers, whose overambitious new ballet, “The Blue Snake,” taxes the company throughout the story. Desrosiers seems genuinely delighted to offer himself up for parody, gently needled all along as a sort of general-issue wispy Francophone intellectual artiste. From the moment he presents his first sketches for the expensive new production, through early choreography and more elaborate costumed rehearsals, we’re invited to roll our eyes — right along with the dancers — at his absurdly inflated “concept” and ever sillier conceits, at the wacky costumes and incoherent muddle of a story this magnum opus is going to tell. Silly it is, but it turns out in the event to be a charming fairy-tale piece — aimed, like The Thirteen Clocks, primarily, but not only, at children. It may not be exactly deep, but it’s a delightful, crowd-pleasing confection that will at least help pay the bills.

And this overstuffed fairy tale provides Altman with an opportunity that probably only he could treat so deftly. We learn (through a dancer’s dead-on impersonation of Desrosiers) during rehearsals that the “Giant” with which the ballet will conclude has just one problem: “It eats dancers.” And indeed it does; when we finally see it the eyerolling mechanical monstrosity, a human-faced Fafner, shovels dancers into its immense mouth by the fistful, roaring “Fee fie foe fum” the while. We realize that for the last two hours, among other things, we’ve been watching dancers devoured by their own commitment and its resultant endless struggle with paying the bills, and by the relentless & even imprudent commitment of those in whose hands they place themselves for training and direction. Indeed, at the premiere, it is the immense maw that takes the final curtain call of the performance, and the final curtain call of Altman’s movie. In any other hands, this concluding symbol would have been as gross and heavyhanded as the last shot of Cool hand Luke; but Altman is a wiser sort.

And this splendid little concluding allegory brings to mind another artist-devouring giant maw. Much has been said, for many decades now, about the relentless grinding away of promising young women who choose acting careers, who achieve real stardom with a few brilliant roles, and who then pretty much drop from sight. I do not intend to analyse yet again why any of us before even blinking can name a dozen or so such “whatever happened tos”; but if one is going to offer a note on a Robert Altman film, one is obligated to go out on at least one limb — especially considering onto how many of them Altman himself routinely climbs:

My oldest and dearest friend said that he’d avoided seeing The company so far because he was afraid he’d be “going just to look at Neve Campbell’s eyebrows.” And with a relentless sham culture of surfaces and glamour besetting us wherever we turn, that’s a wise and solid sentiment.

But surely no one would express doubts about going to watch one of Ingrid Bergman’s classic roles for the same reason? You have only to mention Ms Bergman’s name to learn instantly whether you are talking with someone who has seen one of those roles: because for a moment the eyes in front of you will light with recognition, and you will see a little softening, perhaps brief, perhaps longer, in whatever walls of defense your interlocutor has built over the years. For just a moment, Ms Bergman’s eyes glisten right there before you, in the eyes of someone grateful for the reminder of their own best and most open self.

Now, it is a long way from Ms Campbell’s famous Party of five squint to the celebrated eyes that shine in Rick’s Café; yet, though I make no predictions, I can at least express a hope: If, God willing — and it is a huge if — she continues as she has thus far to find ways of avoiding that giant maw, I believe that, unlikely as it might sound now, many decades hence we may watch an early Neve Campbell role side by side with one she committed to film in, say, her seventies, and marvel, just as we do now at Ms Bergman’s, at the soul to which those eyes are the window. If she — and we — can manage it, we’ll all be a little the richer.


* James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks