Robert Altman’s The Company is about a season with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and even by Altman standards, it’s plotless. It fits no category—“docudrama tone poem” probably comes closest. Because most of the famous movies about ballet, such as The Turning Point and The Red Shoes, have been flagrantly theatrical, Altman’s Zen-like cool here can seem perverse: a deliberate jettisoning of everything audiences love about such films. This is particularly odd coming right after his lavishly plotted Gosford Park. Then again, the 78-year-old Altman has been predictably unpredictable his entire career. Why stop now?
The cast consists of Joffrey members except for Neve Campbell, trained in ballet, who conceived the story with Barbara Turner and plays Ry, a dancer on the verge of becoming a principal; James Franco, who plays her chef boyfriend, Josh; and Malcolm McDowell, as Alberto Antonelli, the artistic director who refers to the members of his company as his “babies” and is loosely modeled on the Joffrey’s co-founder, Gerald Arpino. (McDowell’s juicy performance is the only one that would fit into the standard Hollywood ballet movie.) The dance rehearsals featuring Ry and the others are often followed by performances before a live audience, and the non-dance sequences have a smoothly choreographed quality, too. A near-wordless courtship scene in a pool hall between Ry and Josh, and another one back at her place, plays like pas de deux. Altman isn’t romanticizing the dancers, exactly; in fact, he points up the generally low-rent existence they lead offstage and the injuries they sustain. But he is in awe of their grace and chooses to give their lives a balletic flow. In the end, this notion may be no more realistic than anything in The Red Shoes, but it lends The Company a floating, sensual feel. Everyone and everything in it, at one time or another, seems lighter than air.
The drawback to Altman’s technique is that sometimes things are so airy they drift away. Even in his most seemingly haphazard movies, like Nashville, there was always the armature of a narrative; his storytelling was just more free-form than we were used to. But The Company is a series of impressions united by not much more than mood. It’s not really such a great achievement to knock out all those hoary plot conventions; some of them were deliriously enjoyable. (There’s a reason why every little girl who saw The Red Shoes wanted to become a ballerina.) Altman doesn’t want to make a Hollywood movie. Fine. And yet there were times when I thought he wanted to make a documentary but felt beholden to the script. His dancers are physical marvels, but by concentrating so fully on their prowess, he doesn’t convey much of their inner lives. He may believe that the only real vitality they possess is onstage, but isn’t that vision a bit myopic for an artist of Altman’s ambition?
At least he does right by the dancing, which includes the elaborate fantasia The Blue Snake, choreographed by Robert Desrosiers (who appears in the film as himself). It’s a sinuous piece of mass movement set to music by Van Dyke Parks, and, as with all the ballets that we see, Altman shows us the dancers in full, without a lot of show-offy camera angles and close-ups. Only a filmmaker who truly loves ballet would choose this approach. He isn’t trying to wow us, because he knows that nothing can compete with the lyricism of these anointed athletes.
House of Sand and Fog is a gloomfest from first to last. Writer-director Vadim Perelman, adapting the novel by Andre Dubus III, has a much greater affinity for fog than for sand. The main protagonists—Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), an emotional wreck who has been unjustly evicted from the Northern California bungalow her father willed to her, and Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian exile and former colonel in the shah’s Air Force who bought the bungalow at auction—are destined to obliterate each other. Kathy’s feverish attempt to reclaim her home collides with Behrani’s determination to use it as a steppingstone to the American Dream for his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son (Jonathan Ahdout, a gifted newcomer). There’s something bullying about the film’s determinism—Perelman, taking his cue from Dubus, offers the audience no light, no hope. But at least he doesn’t villainize his characters—both Kathy and Behrani, in their own ways, are in the right—and the performances are amazing: Connelly, who has often mistaken posing for acting, digs deep here; Aghdashloo, a film star in her native Iran before leaving in 1978, gives us a portrait of a woman who is both dutiful to her husband and ravaged by his iron will. Kingsley is most impressive of all. His Behrani has been reduced to working two crummy jobs in order to keep his family ensconced in a fancy apartment building, but even in his convenience-store fatigues, he seems to be wearing a colonel’s uniform. His pride has pathos, and in the end, when he wails to bring back a wounded loved one, the full tragedy of what he has undergone hits us like a punch in the stomach.
In Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War—there’s that fog again—Robert McNamara, who for seven years was secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the Vietnam War era, serves up his recollections, justifications, and mea culpas. Morris filmed him for over twenty hours in order to make this movie, and interspersed with McNamara’s bland technospeak are moments of startling revelation—especially the disclosure of his close relationship with General Curtis LeMay in carrying out fire-bombings in Japan that predated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed nearly a million Japanese civilians. Morris is mostly content to let his subject speak unchallenged, and this approach gives McNamara license to, in effect, write his own epitaph. Morris is clearly hoping that, by letting him run on, a larger philosophical issue about the ambiguous nature of moral accountability will emerge. (The hocus-pocus score, regrettably, is by Philip Glass.) This sometimes happens, but more often McNamara comes across as Exhibit A in Morris’s latest metaphysical creepshow.