Robert Altman sets the stage and lets his players do what they do in his films. He's renown as one of the great directors to give actors freedom (he's probably in his own way as meticulous as Stanley Kubrick, only with far less takes), though one wonders if from time to time he does give his direction to an actor or to make sure they know what they're doing. But in his films, like with this Chicago dancing company presented in his 2003 film The Company, the people doing the work need to know what they're doing, and that's the key to getting process, since dance, like film, combines many elements (in terms of dance there's physical movement, there's acting and performance, there's emotion, there's music and lighting, and so on).
I imagine that's what drew Altman to the project (it was said it took some consideration before he accepted the job), that and perhaps a connection with the character Malcolm McDowell plays, Mr. Antonelli. He doesn't have much of a ego, but when he needs to (or just wants to) he'll put on airs. While some of the students may roast him eventually- there's a company Christmas party where he's ruthlessly but pleasantly mocked- they always take what he says seriously, since when he speaks one listens, even if it's a rambling speech about what the 1960's were like. He, like Altman, is in control even when he doesn't seem to be doing much. And how the stage is set, as we see, goes a long way for a fantastic dance set-piece, be it with thirty people in crazy costumes or a couple in very sensual poses.
The Company has not much plot to speak of- then again, Altman would probably rather get a root canal than worry about a plot- except that it's about a dance/ballet company putting on performances throughout a season, with some minor drama here and there, a small romance between a superstar in the group played by Neve Campbell and a chef played by James Franco (tender scenes but played for real, much like those in Thieves Like Us). But there are a few great scenes (and as Hawks would say, no bad ones), and one of them might be one of my favorite scenes, in terms of intentional (or not) artistic elements coming together, in any Altman film. There's a performance out at night in a park in front of hundreds. The first part goes reasonably well, with thunderstorm sounds in the background. Then Campbell and another dancer take the stage, and as the lovely string music swells, the lightning and thunder as well, and the rain falls and the crowd looks anxious but all the while wrapped up in the completely professional-breathtaking dancing on stage, with little dust and other things flying in the air. It's glorious.
How much that was on the spot for Altman, or if it was planned to just shoot in the impending storm (or, perhaps, if it's all just made up for the movie), it's a really wonderful set piece among many others that are more conventionally stage-bound and shot with multiple cameras. The assortment is nice to see (a song from David Lynch's Industrial Symphony #1 even comes up). But it's those little scenes between people, where Altman breaks down artifice (or adds to it seamlessly, like a dance itself) that The Company gains its strength. One of which is the first time Franco and Campbell meet eye to eye at a bar. Watch as Franco sits and watched her play pool. This could go any number of ways from creepy to erotic, but it's more playful and ambiguous than that. We see the aftermath of this scene in a morning-after follow-up, but it's how Altman lets these actors be natural, find their space to look at one another or play pool, that is extraordinary.
What The Company lacks in melodramatic tension or a real driving force towards something- the one criticism it could be given, though not a harsh one, is an almost disdain for any continuing conflict- is made up for in a principle need to express what it's like to create something, anything, on stage or on film, that's worth something. It's the work of an old master still looking for ways to create, or observe it being done.
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