****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Barbara Robertson
screenplay by Barbara Turner
directed by Robert Altman
by Walter Chaw There is a moment in Robert Altman's beautifully metered The Company where we're introduced to a cook played by James Franco through a low angle shot hovering over the green, smoke-haloed expanse of a gin-joint pool table. Wordless, the sequence plays out as Ry (Neve Campbell, never better) shoots a rack to the cool blues slinking out of a corner jukebox, glancing up now and again to meet Josh's (Franco) frank interest with gradually thawing humour and heat. Discretely, the film cuts to the next morning as Josh cooks an omelette with what's available in the kitchen of Ry's artist's loft.
It's what passes for courtship in the adult world: an exchange of glances, a wordless agreement, and then the refuge of routine. Altman's film about Chicago's Joffrey Ballet is really at its heart a film about the ways that strict regimentation of behaviour is often the loam for the best expressions of artistic freedom--the old axe of rules setting one free flavoured with the unavoidable collisions of undisciplined fate: a top dancer popping her Achilles tendon, another losing her position to an aspiring ingÃ©nue, another felled by his father's oppressive need for him to succeed at any cost. The characters are recognizable from dozens of other films set among the arts, but they're distinguished in The Company by the kind of muted naturalism that can be the director's greatest strength when employed in a story that uses it as counterpoint (Popeye) or commentary (McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In The Company, the overlapping conversations and the distracted camerawork is the perfect match for its look at the way that we seek refuge in habit--producing art when we can with an ounce of inspiration and a metric ton of repetition.
The film, then, becomes a look at Altman's process, uncovering layers of human complexity through layers of humanity (his gigantic ensembles), interacting in ways seemingly random until, inevitably, recognizable patterns begin to emerge from the carefully structured chaos. Dance seems the perfect match for Altman's eye, and he films several performances with a care that allows even the uninitiated to appreciate the brute will exerted to twist blood and tissue into the tremulous forms of art. Dance becomes a fascination for us, a revelation of the flesh wherein we are able to find a universal sublimity in the passion of creation.
So when Ry meets Josh by chance in some bar some night, Altman is able to first present the ways that our lives are unpredictable, then to show how our fire can forge from that chaos something majestically familiar. There is an element of perseverance in all of Altman's films--accordingly, The Company is not so much the story of a rising star falling in love but a suggestion that life is ebbing and flowing and starting over again from the beginning. At his best, Altman can help us hear the silent throb that we all march to. If The Company isn't his absolute best (though a dance in the rain has something of the old magic to it), it at least deserves a passing mention with stuff like McCabe and Nashville. It's his best film in years, and I wish I'd seen it in time for last year's ten-best list. Originally published: January 30, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Columbia TriStar issues The Company on DVD in a sensational 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The film is a better argument for HD than anything dreamt of in Robert Rodriguez's philosophy, although Altman's customarily diffuse imagery is presumably more adaptable to a lower-resolution format than the slick Rodriguez style. While the transfer, which looks to have utilized a celluloid intermediary, is wanting for a broader spectrum of contrast (the same could be said of virtually any Altman title, given his proclivity for the technique of pre-"flashing" raw stock to crush blacks and boost grain), shadow detail is surprisingly good and the colours are incredibly rich. It wasn't until dipping into the supplementary material that I was reminded of The Company's frankly unnoticeable digital origins. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also something to behold; the thunderstorm sequence is a particular standout among the dance numbers in that it's dazzling both visually ("Like a painting," Campbell observes with folksy understatement in her commentary with Altman, to which the director adds an even folksier "yup") and aurally. Watch the film a second time with closed-captioning activated to catch some witty and often thematically resonant dialogue buried realistically beneath the diagetic music.
Campbell and "Bob" Altman's feature-length yakker is the only other soundtrack option, and it's a pleasant, if not profound, listening experience, with Campbell--who seems a lot more familiar with the finished product than Altman does--revealing that her character's biographical details were hijacked from another dancer named Trinity (and nicknamed "Gumby") who appears in the film. Campbell and Altman resurface as talking heads in a platitudinous making-of (7 mins.) to which screenwriter Barbara Turner and co-star James Franco also contribute interviews, while "The Passion of Dance" (4 mins.) finds ex-National Ballet of Canada member Campbell vouching for the dedication of a company dancer. (Oddly, no one is on hand to represent the Joffrey in either of these featurettes.) Rounding out the platter: "Studio A/Showoff" (an "extended dance sequence" that's little more than an additional minute of enthusiastic warm-ups), plus trailers for The Company and its soundtrack CD, Big Fish, Bon Voyage, The Cuckoo, The Fog of War, Masked and Anonymous, Mona Lisa Smile, Respiro, Something's Gotta Give, and The Triplets of Belleville. In all, a satisfying release--but what's with that awful cover art? Originally published: May 31, 2004.