Despite the occasional misfire from time to time, Robert Altman remains one of the most fascinating directors working today, largely because he continues to insist on a defiant, supremely confident unconventionality. The rules of cinema dictate that a film must have three distinct acts, have clear motivations and conflicts, and resolve all issues before reaching the final credits. Plots must move in a linear fashion and if there is mystery or experimentation, a line or two of dialogue must step foreward to quickly clear matters. And then there is Altman. For a man who has tackled so many diverse genres (the Western, the musical, film noir, period drama, adapted stage play), he simply refuses to give us what we think we might want or expect from a motion picture. Even when he fails miserably (as he did in spades with 1994’s excruciating Ready to Wear), there is still something charming about his misfire, almost as if he has declared that if he must bomb, he will do it like no one else before him. But on the whole, Altman succeeds because he plays with character and story to the point where we can believe that what we are watching is not a movie at all, but rather a surreptitious filmmaker catching real people with their collective guards down. By now even the unfamiliar know about Altman’s technique of overlapping dialogue, which for my money is one of the most glorious new directions of cinema in the past thirty years. At its most insightful, such a method allows each and every character — background or foreground — to be of equal importance. We do not know where to look for our next shot of wisdom. “Chatter,” therefore, is not merely used to occupy space while the main players move the story forward, but rather it explores the interactions and relationships of everyone who might matter to the film, at first in ways we cannot imagine.
The Company is in that fine Altman tradition; not a moment-defining masterpiece like Nashville or Short Cuts, but a film that, if taken on its own terms and intentions, reveals more about the world of dance than a dozen more traditional stories. It would be fair to say that The Company is not really a drama at all, although dramatic things do occur, if by dramatic we mean that the characters work, struggle, compete, and watch their once bright careers fade into the abyss. But where a lesser film might emphasize these events with pounding music and shouts of excitement, Altman plays them as they would occur in life: messy, easily forgotten, and with the quiet understanding that few people outside of our small circle care about what we do in the course of a day. As in life, people cross paths, exchange a word or two, and perhaps do not speak again for weeks, if ever. Resentments stay buried, maybe just expressed with a glance, but carried no further as fear often keeps us in line. And when a top dancer snaps her Achilles tendon, thereby shattering her dreams in an instant, there is a brief pause, a nod of recognition, and a swift, if callous, push forward. No tears, no cries of anguish, and not even an expletive from the dancer herself. She merely sits there with a pained resignation; we need not tell her what has happened because the implications are quite evident. More than that, we only see that same dancer twice more in the film, both times in the background while on crutches. Because what the dancers do on stage is paramount, to spend any more time with the fallen woman would be a sop to soap opera conventions. And as we know, life rarely stops to pay us any mind. If we go away, others come forward. That’s a dance company, and that’s life.
While I am not usually a fan of ballet (in my ignorance I usually dismissed it as a distraction for homosexuals), I must admit to being transformed by the performances in this film. To watch a truly talented dancer at work is to watch the human body flirt with perfection, achieving angles and positions that defy reason. And yes, these are finely tuned beings, athletes in the truest sense of the word who arguably know their bodies better than anyone else. Given that most of us spend our days in a perpetual slouch or scratching our shapeless slabs while sinking into the oblivion of our sofas, to witness such glorious forms should elicit our utmost respect. The bodies aside, the dances were flawlessly designed, staged, and choreographed. Each step was exactly as it should be, and whenever I witness an art form brought to its highest level, I immediately and forcefully register my awe. That is why The Company is literally a dance film, rather than a film that uses dance as a plot device. We see many slices of several different performances, but we also become familiar with preparation, backstage maneuvers, and, with the artistic director (acted with gentleness and smarm by the wonderful Malcolm McDowell) the business side of the craft. Again, because Altman never states the obvious and spells with capital letters, we can understand the intent of these brief scenes — even in the midst of beauty, there must be financial considerations. And because Altman personally understands the war between art and commerce, he is in a privileged position to assess the frustrations of constantly fighting to finish the next project.
The Company thrilled my imagination at every turn because it avoided everything that would be expected from a film of this nature. There are no last-minute calls that threaten to cancel the big performance; there are no messy romances that set dancer against dancer; there are no behind-the-scenes shots of a cocky director pressuring a naive young starlet to fuck her way to the top; and there are no hostile mothers and dismissive fathers who later change their minds and, at the last minute, attend that final performance. Instead, the dancers perfect their moves, wait in the wings for their shot (but never insisting on it, like so many films where a close-up would reveal sinister intentions), run to bars in their spare time, attend cast parties, and have the occasional fling. Their world– and the only one worth our attention–is on stage, and anything else would be a cliché or a distraction. Watching the labor that must be put into each show, we can understand the obsessions and the frayed nerves without having to see numerous scenes “proving” this fact. It is simply understood. Like all of Altman’s finest work (most notably in Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller), we are observing lives already underway, and what we see in the course of a few hours could never really be complete. They already understand each other, and it is up to us to discover what it is they know. They could tell us, I suppose, but that would be phony. Do you reintroduce yourself to your best friend or parents every time you visit?
The closing performance — some high-concept nonsense called “Blue Snake” — is silly and borderline camp, but it would be dead wrong to accuse Altman of belittling the craft. Like any ballet company, there will be classic shows, revivals, new directions, and just as often, experimental exercises that defy description. It is a stroke of genius to end the film with the silliest snippet because tradition would have a film end on a note of grand beauty. Most of what we see is sumptuous, erotic, and passionate, but not everything undertaken by even the most talented of dancers is going to work. Altman, as a director for over thirty years, has proven that. We might laugh at “Blue Snake” with its outrageous costumes and ridiculous props, but Altman loves it all because he appreciates the joy that goes into each and every move. By showing the dancers in this light, it is clear that Altman has discovered the best way to share his joy. The film might play like a detached documentary with nothing approaching typical story structure (some critics have fumed pointedly about the lack of fireworks), but apply anything we typically see in Hollywood movies and the dancing (as an art) would have suffered. On them — those beautiful machines of sumptuous glory — is where our eyes belong. Few knew that Altman had a film like this in him, but at 78, he continues to challenge himself and the world of cinema. As such, his art is our everlasting gain.
But even a great time at the movies must have its low point — nothing on screen, mind you, but some asshole sitting directly behind me. Never in my life have I heard someone eat popcorn with more disgusting relish, although at times I wondered if his slurps and gulps betrayed his true goal of inhaling his own face. His crunches and smacks got so annoying that, much to my delight, my wife turned around and snapped, “Could you eat any louder?” The man promptly stopped, although he rattled his bag from time to time. Why popcorn continues to be a movie snack is beyond me. Why not potato chips? Or celery stalks?