neve campbell and robert altman’s the company – the future of dance film

February 8th, 2004 § 0 |

out to lunch with my cousin shane last week. talk of film and life and love. casually mention, robert altman and neve campbell’s the company. future of dance film much depends on the success of such projects. immensely difficult to realise.

a miracle. greatest admiration for neve campbell following her vision to its final end. all of her training. the incredible passion involved, not to mention millions missed which could have been made shooting other projects while training and shooting this six month marathon.

on my last day in toronto and after a delicious korean dinner at joons at 606 bloor street west, greg barker-greene and fionnuala jamieson and i went to see the film. i was very concerned it might take a long time to see it anywhere in europe besides paris.

to my shock and horror it didn’t work. i was speech struck for the rest of the evening. let’s take it element by element:

the dance segments
mediocre. nothing appalling but nothing compelling. no one has captured dance successfully on camera.apart from an obscure mosfilm version of grigorovich’s ivan the terrible where he was allocated one of the large studios at mosfilm for several months and the entire resources of the soviet union. think dancers swinging from fifty metre bells.

robert altman did a professional enough job. the difficulty he ran into was the inevitable medium shot. it simply doesn’t work in dance film. one must either be in a wide shot (feet, ankles, arms and hands) or in some kind of a close up (whether medium, normal or extreme). dance cannot be compellingly captured on film in real time. the manipulation of time and movement is essential for that is what the trained eye naturally does. the ballon of the prince endures far longer in the mind’s eye than reality. in film, the live reaction is suppressed – thus the leap must be made longer through technical means to make the moment true.

of course idle critical speculation from the bleachers is the bane of artistic progress. i am in the process of putting these theories into practice. when lapinthrope is finally completed, my thesis will either be borne out or disproven.

in fairness to robert altman & co., an external duet in a thunderstorm did work well. as the whole stage weaved and creaked in the wind as the audience opened umbrellas, the dancers concentration on their art in the face of the raging elements was impressive. a well-thought out dance moment.

the narrative
here is where i take genuine issue with both neve campbell and robert altman. i mean what the hell were they thinking of?

the principal story is the inane relationship of ms. campbell’s ry with one sous-chef josh (coyly and rather poorly played by james franco). apparently when one becomes a cook or a dancer in neve campbell’s world (she wrote the story) one loses the faculty of speech.

these two banal lovebirds are the most inarticulate characters i have ever seen on stage, television or in film. literally they exchange not more than thirty words in this two hour marathon of silent love.

josh makes breakfast after their first night together. the morning after conversation.

eggs. good.
tomatoes good.

fionnuala pointed out that the filmmakers intentions were trying to show that these two communicated with their bodies and their senses and were not bound into the quotidien world of words like the rest of us. perhaps.

it is my great happiness that many of my friends and companions have been dancers and/or choreographers. neve campbell’s hypothesis is simple slander.

while not noted for their erudition, dancers are more inclined to try to articulate their feelings than most as generally they are deeply in touch with said feelings. it is not so much a question of virtue but rather simple necessaity: they need their emotions for their work on stage and so they talk about them a lot.

not only is the hypothesis false (or at least often so), but it also makes for a far less interesting film. if either josh or ry could articulate their dilemmas in life or their feelings for one another, we might be a lot more interested in their story, which for better or (probably) worse, is the driving narrative thrust of the company.

characterization
apart from the shallow characterization of the principal leads, the filmmakers run into another huge problem. they simply pick up and drop characters with very little continuity in their stories.

older dancers appear and disappear. young sycophants appear and disappear. only malcolm mcdowell’s company director alberto antonelli maintains any continuity in the mishmash of scenes.

canadian choreographer robert desrosiers does a marvellous extended cameo as himself.

this lack of continuity resulted in a disconcerting lack of focus. i am inclined to abscribe the haphazard quality as a bold if failed experiment in improvisational filmmaking.

greg liked much of what we saw as a documentary filmmaker he is interested in the mixture of fact and fiction. he enjoyed the dance segments and the appearance of ordinary cast members throughout the film.

fionnuala loathed every aspect of the company. but she is quite a bit of a festival film snob. she cannot see intention or boldness of plan as merits. she does not see the beauty in failure. i find her reaction simplistic as for her a film either works or it doesn’t.

i don’t believe one can be so categoric about art. art can succeed and fail on many levels. many successful projects are in fact void of meaning or soul, while externally successful. i think of the quagmire of quentin tarantino type films. simply stylistic exercises which do naught to make the world a better place – perhaps only succeed in making it a worse one.

but sadly i too remain disillusioned with this film. i had hoped for so much and to see so little delivered. very discouraging for dance film.

footnote to above review
even more shocking is the critical reaction – most film critics liked it very much. more importantly for dance filmmakers, the company is posting good numbers on the 55 theatres it is in.

perhaps there is hope for attempting again to make the next great theatrical dance film since the red shoes.

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