Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 04, 2004 9:41 pm 
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Generic drama of dance by the numbers

The Company is far below the level of Robert Altman’s best efforts. In contrast with Gosford Park’s endlessly fascinating chatter weaving an intricate web of intrigues and secrets, there’s much stretching and dancing, but very little human detail. There’s hardly what you could call a plot. There are only a few strong characters. All you really get to hold things together somehow or provide some sense of continuity is a series of things that go wrong:

(1) Among the many dance “numbers,” the one that stands out is the first, an outdoor performance featuring the Hollywood actress Neve Campbell (Scream 1,2, and 3, Wild Things), a trained dancer and the force behind the making of the whole film. A thunderstorm comes to buffet the audience and the dancers. The dancers bravely soldier on and the dance -- at least so we're told -- is a triumph. The entire sequence is dominated by a sense of impending disaster. A slippery stage could have meant serious injury. The accompanists' stringed instruments could be ruined. The audience might just get up and leave. All this makes the dance itself excruciating to watch. Altman does succeed, though, in presenting the show from the company's viewpoint: for them, any performance is a series of struggles to overcome physical obstacles and, at best, to avert disaster.

(2) An injury forces a new lead dancer to give up a role. This happens twice. We realize that dancers constantly face injury, or, as often, are dangerously in denial that they have one.

(3) Another sort of injury prevents a dancer from performing the whole of a “number.” This happens to Neve Campbell at the end of the movie. It’s just an arm injury, so not career-threatening, but enough to require a quick replacement by a stand-in during the final performance.

(4) A young man is only replaced for the latter part of a dance he’s in, but this results in a terribly bruised ego for the young man, and his union rep promises to lodge a formal protest. We get a sense of the manifold threats to the ego of such an arbitrarily run system, along with the surprising news that union redress may be available.

(5) One of the guys in the company takes a new girlfriend. This time again it’s Neve Campbell who’s the “injured” one, and at a post-performance celebration she delivers an “I was the last to know” speech to the bad boy. I saw nods of agreement from dancerly-looking audience members during this moment.

(6) The aging female lead dancer, who's 43, repeatedly protests that new dances are too challenging for her and refuses to accept changes in the choreography of old ones. The potentially interesting, possibly tragic, theme of aging in what is really one of the world's most demanding sports is, however, only briefly touched on.

(7) An argument occurs between the director and one dancer, who hates the choreography of a dance he's in in which men wearing skirts “give birth” -- and the director instantly reverses what he said about how to perform this moment the day before. The director is adamant, the dancer has lost his cool, and the conversation breaks down. The director frequently ends unsatisfactory conversations by dismissing his interlocutor: his rule is autocratic and rarely challenged. However the company does get mild revenge toward the end in a mock restaging of the season's events at a party.

And that's about it.

All this adds up to something so abstract and uninteresting as emotional truth or human experience that you are deeply grateful when Neve Campbell finds a cook boyfriend and he's played by the intriguing James Franco. You’re thankful for the arrival of Franco because he's the one young male movie star in the piece. The real dancer “actors” – as usual – have very little presence or ability as actors. All James Franco gets to do is smile, kiss the girl, take off his shirt, and break some eggs. These actions are but crumbs tossed to us. He performs them with lots of sexiness and charm. But the real point of his presence seems to be that dancers don’t have time for more than quick sex: and it’s like smoking a cigarette, something squeezed in.

Altman's casts are usually heavy with talent. This time there are only three leads, Campbell, McDowell, and Franco. Ironically only the least used, Franco, has any real appeal.

Ms. Campbell is little more than bustling and workmanlike. She has a few minutes with her pushy stage mother that provide some sense of relationships outside the company, but it’s not enough.

You will have a lot of trouble with this movie if you don’t like Malcolm McDowell, but you probably won't. As the “Italian” company director Alberto Antonelli, he is brusque, bossy, obtrusive -- really just a flaming asshole with a lot of power to abuse. Is this how dance companies work? Where’s the genius? Why does young Franco -- who's just a cook --have more charisma and sex appeal? And what’s this about a ceremony in which the blatantly English McDowell gets an award for “honoring the Italian-American community”? Okay; let’s pretend that he’s Italian. But do we have to pretend he has no English accent? If that weren’t bad enough, his little speech about not discouraging their sons from becoming ballet dancers is jarring and crude, like all his speeches: it’s the height of ingratitude, and you wonder how anyone so undiplomatic could get money for his company. His performance is wooden and unsubtle. Is it just possible that McDowell is a jarring and crude actor? All he has to qualify for this role is forcefulness. Granted, he has that. But his scenes are nothing but irritations.

This is, at best, a generic treatment of an American ballet company. But it fails even on that level. How come none of the male dancers, not one, is shown to be gay? Isn’t that a bit unrealistic about the culture and demographics of dance? Why the pretense that they’re all straight, vying to have sex with the female dancers in the company?

Neve’s partner after their triumph in the rain has a private improv session unwinding to a Bach solo cello suite. It’s rather fun – and would have worked better if it had been allowed to run by itself and not been constantly intercut with the scene of Neve in her apartment – a huge Hollywood–style creation right by the “El” with a glam bath. The improvised Bach session makes you realize that Flashdance was better than this. So was Center Stage, directed by Nicolas Hytner (2000), which was a movie about young people competing to get into a dance company, featuring real dancers again. Center Stage had a plot you could care about, and more exciting dancing; the people seemed a tad more real as people too -– and yet it wasn’t a great movie. Altman’s film has spectacular dance sequences at the beginning and the end but they’re just staging, not great dance, and they’re window dressing to cover up the emptiness of the whole production.

If you love dance and/or Altman you’ll doubtless have to see this picture, but you won’t be watching a particularly memorable ballet movie or getting Altman even at his average level.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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