If you want a director to throw together a good 30 characters and come out with an emotionally resonant storyline, then Robert Altman is your man. How about a devastating survey of ’70s politics seen through the prism of country music? Yup, Altman. A biting satire of the shallowness of Hollywood delivered by the shallow stars themselves? You guessed it. A wacky romp down the runaways and behind the scenes of the fashion world? Well, nobody’s perfect.
And switching the models for dancers doesn’t seem to help. The Company, which follows the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago as the company prepares for a season-culminating performance of a piece called The Blue Snake, begins auspiciously enough: As the credits roll, Altman’s agile camera echoes the graceful movements of the dancers as they wind their way through a ribbon-strewn stage. The ballerinas soon pull the lengths of ribbon behind them, shaping the strands into taut rectangles that perfectly frame their bodies, then flex and sway with each precise contortion.
Indeed, the film’s greatest strength is Altman’s unerring eye for movement: He’s able to convey both the inordinate grace of dance and the brute strength it takes to fake all that effortlessness. The focus shifts constantly and quickly—from a toe to a bird’s-eye view of a leap to an audience’s amazed reaction—but never jarringly. Even Neve Campbell, on whose experience at Canada’s National School of Ballet the film is partly based, shows a remarkable physicality, fitting seamlessly into a roomful of real ballerinas like an elephant successfully masquerading as a swan. Campbell even pulls off her big solo number with aplomb: Her corps dancer Loretta Ryan gets her big break when the lead suffers a neck spasm, then seals the deal with a fluid performance in a rain-battered outdoor amphitheater, slinking across the stage as leaves swirl in the air.
Offstage, however, The Company loses its balance. Screenwriter Barbara Turner spent two years with the Joffrey before authoring the film, so authenticity isn’t the problem. In fact, perhaps everything is just a bit too authentic: The film’s ensemble is made up largely of the Joffrey’s dancers, and without a typically Altmanesque stable of well-rounded, intersecting characters, the narrative hangs squarely on the shoulders of The Company’s few professional actors.
As eccentric, outspoken Joffrey Director Alberto Antonelli, Malcolm McDowell doesn’t exactly heft that particular burden. And the fact that “Mr. A” is based on the Joffrey’s real-life director won’t do much to dispel your preconceptions of the imperious balletomane: He calls the dancers “babies,” roars that “you’re all so pretty; you know how I hate pretty,” and recites flowery bullshit about “becoming the movement.” The movie’s unforgivable sin, though, is Loretta’s relationship with sous-chef Josh (James Franco). That character, the only one who isn’t involved in the ballet, offers a tantalizing opportunity for the dramatic tension that the film so desperately needs. In the end, he gives nothing—except for a regular cue of “My Funny Valentine” whenever he’s wooing his lady love with some flashy vegetable-paring.
Such scenes are enough to make you wish The Company were simply a performance film. Or at least until the final performance of The Blue Snake. Maybe modern dance is just inscrutable, but that number, which is kind of a cross between Sesame Street Live and The Island of Dr. Moreau: The Ballet, certainly strains the limits of comprehension. As dancers scurry across the stage dressed as red furry something-or-others, dodge anthropomorphic trees, and dive into a giant, smoke-spewing tiki head, it’s hard not to think we would all have been better off with an ensemble drama about the vicissitudes of life as a sous-chef.
A pessimist might say that the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is one of those unfortunate nations doomed by geography to repeated tramplings at the feet of its marauding neighbors. Over the past 2,500 years, the Georgian people have seen their corner of the Caucasus invaded not only by Russians, but also by Mongols, Persians, and Turks. One native Georgian, interviewed in Paul Devlin’s documentary Power Trip, puts a slightly more positive spin on things: “To be a genuine Georgian,” she says, “you have to enjoy life even when you are on the edge of disaster.”
Though conquest inevitably brings hard times, Georgia’s 1991 independence brought the country even closer to the precipice. The white knight/evil corporation at the center of Devlin’s film is AES Corp., the independent American power company that bought the Georgian capital’s newly privatized power system for $35 million in the late ’90s. In the face of Tbilisi’s crumbling infrastructure and tangle of illegal service lines, AES’s mission statement of “integrity, fairness, social responsibility, and fun” reads like a fool’s mantra.
Piers Lewis, an AES regional manager and a college friend of Devlin’s, is the avatar of the company’s seemingly blissful naiveté: The goofy, optimistic polymath vows to cut his stringy hair when 50 percent of Georgian customers are paying for service. When AES starts collecting, that number hovers somewhere near 10 percent. Of course it’s hard to tell exactly, because the cashiers have a nasty habit of stealing checks.
Devlin’s handheld camera follows the company’s oft-overwhelmed representatives as they wake up each day in an electrician’s recurring nightmare. The city’s distribution system, like the billing department, is catch-as-catch-can: Whole neighborhoods are served by a single overloaded box jammed with jury-rigged wires that no one is paying to use. Though AES is clearly performing a public service in modernizing the city’s distribution system, it’s also refashioning the infrastructure so it can start to reap some profit from its investment. When the company spends $60 million to outfit the city with new meters, they are destroyed and vandalized en masse. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Lewis grins goofily as he stares at a tiny, homemade device that shuts off the meter with an electrical impulse. Imagine that: $60 million defeated by 50 cents.
The decision to cut off power to nonpaying customers unsurprisingly provokes a revolt. As angry residents vent their anger at the outsiders—“What do these Americans care? They have electricity and hot water”—the AES executives in turn finger the industrial giants that suck down all the juice and don’t pay for it because they’re owned by relatives of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Then there are the troubles at the National Dispatch Center, where destitute employees redirect the power supply to whoever offers the biggest kickback.
Devlin has said he was loath to take on the project—the transition from communism to capitalism is too complex a story to tell in a 90-minute film—but he needn’t have underestimated his skills. He uses a light touch, deftly showing how the country’s mood waxes and wanes with the state of the power supply. And the national obsession with electricity speaks for itself: A local rock band is inspired, at least lyrically, by its lack of voltage, and AES’s chief representative in Georgia is such a celebrity that a TV cartoon lampoons his quivering right eyebrow.
In the months after the film was completed, Shevardnadze was forced out by a velvet revolution in which 100,000 protesters massed around the parliamentary headquarters. And just this week, an accident at a power station led to a blackout that has left almost all of Georgia in the dark. With the nation once again on the edge of disaster, let’s hope Georgians are enjoying life. CP