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The Dance of Life: Robert Altman’s The Company

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The Company ***** – a masterpiece

Robert Altman’s most recent feature, The Company, is not a film for everyone. It doesn’t require that you know anything about dance (I know very little, and don’t much care to learn more) – it’s polarizing nature is in its plotlessness. Many films can be considered to be “plotless” – the most recent perfect example would be Gus Van Sant’s Gerry – but The Company lacks a plot in a different way. The film is more about observation than it is telling (Gerry may be light in the area of plot, but it still tells us things – emotions, ambigious themes), and in that right I would compare it more to something along the lines of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera than Gus Van Sant’s film.

To say The Company is without any thematic worth is underanalyzing it – but much of its appeal, like the ballet displayed, is as an experience. Characters explain some of the motivations behind certain aspects of the differing ballet in terms of vague and pretentious metaphors that can never be developed (“Zebras enter the stage, the black and white signifying the duality of nature and man”), and they subtract from the experience. The ballet – at least from what I get out of it – serves purely on an aesthetic plane, much like most of Altman’s film. The difference between the two is that Altman is so brilliantly subtle with his themes, that they never overbear the beauty of his observation. By doing so, he allows his film (an artistic medium that can be thematically rich, unlike dance) to compliment what it is observing.

What themes Altman’s film penetrates through its observation is the complimentary nature of both life and art. Film critic Ed Gonzalez (Slant Magazine) notes that Altman manages to “find dance in everything… When Josh makes an omelette for Ry, Altman lingers as much on Franco’s obliques as he does on the tomatoes he seductively slices into. Just as dance is her performance, food is his.” I don’t agree with the notion that art is in everything, and everything is art – whatever “dance” Altman finds serves more for his particular film and its subject, rather than a general statement – but there is some truth in the relationship formed. There is no segregation between art and non-art (and the artist and non-artist) in the film, both strive to compliment one another than to exist on differing planes. Ballet needs an audience, and an audience needs ballet.

The compliment between the artist and non-artist spills over to life itself – the romance between Neve Campbell’s Ry and James Franco’s Josh serve as the working example. It is implied earlier that Ry has ended a relationship on poor terms with another dancer in the company – two artists without a non-artist to collaborate with. In the final dance sequence, Ry injures herself and discovers that Josh has burnt his arm at work – a reminder of the relationship between art and life, all to the tune to the beauty of dance.

Now that I have seen The Company, my 2003 top ten list has been altered to include it. The list and all previous reviews and essays can be viewed at Filmateur.

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  • Matthew Anderson

    Matthew Kuehl Chicago rated this in the top 5.