Less Than Greek: Robert Altman’s The Company


A fascinating failure, Robert Altman’s The Company is a bad film that’s worth embracing. If you’re the least bit enamored of ballet or Altman’s signature style, then this flawed, irritating, often boring, yet ultimately rapturous work affords an indispensable view.

Let’s skip straight ahead to the rapture. The highest moment belongs to Emily Patterson (pictured above) of the Joffrey Ballet, although the solo she performs, White Widow, seems less about her gifts as a dancer than the powerful confluence of light, sound, and image. The white gowned Patterson twirls and bends within a long, narrow swing; the shadowy blue light bathes her in unearthly hues; and the music, “The World Spins” by Angelo Badalamenti, casts a melancholic aura that leaves room, nonetheless, for wistful hope.

There are moments of tenderness in The Company that are likely without peer in an Altman film. The nearly wordless romance between a dancer (Neve Campbell) and her chef boyfriend (James Franco) rarely comes to the foreground, yet attains a wholly earned sweetness (just watch Franco chop vegetables) that makes a New Years Eve dinner sequence intensely affecting. Altman uses the Rodgers & Hart chestnut “My Funny Valentine” as a leitmotif for the young couple; I was surprised at how much juice the old song still has, and never did I dream that Kronos Quartet, of all ensembles, would render the tune so bewitchingly.

company_posterThe film, unfortunately, opens on shaky ground with an abysmal Alwin Nikolais piece, Tensile Involvement. Wriggling ballerinas weave and interlace elastic sashes into cat’s cradles while clad in white body stockings, their rib cages outlined in red. Choreographer Nikolais, who also designed these appalling costumes, scores his steps to jarring, percussive electronica. Right away, my hopes diminished. And The Company’s initial half-hour amounts to little past excruciation: Slow, hacked-up, shapeless scenes marred further by fuzzy, grayed-out cinematography. The first few dances that follow the Nikolais, similarly, are grotesque rather than beautiful or thought provoking. The film’s improvised humor consists of the low-key vulgarity that Altman usually mistakes for sophistication, and then there’s Malcolm McDowell, severely miscast as the company director, a man, so we’re told, of Italian-American lineage. McDowell is as much Italian as I am a Chinaman. Furthermore, he has neither a flair for comedy nor an ability to make us believe that he was once himself in ballet slippers. To be fair, I can’t offhand name any actor who could send home a line such as, “This baby is a metaphor for giving birth.” McDowell would have to be deeply submerged in parody for his awful dialogue to have even a satiric kick, and he isn’t.

At some point, the film almost imperceptibly shifts to a higher plane. Promise peeks through during an outdoor performance (again, set to “My Funny Valentine”) that’s nearly overtaken by a windstorm, lightning, and thunder. The first bravura scene, even so, belongs to the Joffrey’s Davis Robertson, as he rehearses solo to one of the Bach Cello Suites; the dark, masculine intensity of the music perfectly meshes with the flow of his chi. Later, we see a too brief glimpse of Strange Prisoners, a work that Robertson choreographs to the same Bach piece. This haunting snippet, six arms silhouetted against a curtain, left me wanting more. It’s in these moments that you can see what The Company might have been, and yet feel grateful for the arresting fragments it bequeaths to us.

January 2004

12/2006 Update: Well, opinions evolve, and my assessment of The Company has improved quite a bit over the course of subsequent immersion. Contrary to what I wrote above about “hacked-up” and “grayed-out,” Geraldine Peroni’s editing is fluid and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography crisp. (Perhaps only the Harvard Exit projectionist was at fault.) There’s also Van Dyke Parks’s charming original music for jazz piano and guitar, always a pleasure to listen to again. And how couldn’t I savor the adroitly witty performance of Marilyn Dodds Frank who, as Neve Campbell’s mother, loves red wine served chilled? Something to consider: known Paulette Stephanie Zacharek completely dismissed The Company in her Altman obit for Salon, thus inadvertently advancing this evanescent film’s enduring value.