In the Company of dancers

Altman dances with the Capezio crowd in The Company

Robert Altman's always been something of a dancer. The 79-year-old director has proven himself time and again to be one of America's most nimble and imaginative improvisers, moving with the fluidity and grace of a ballet dancer through the course of nearly 40 films. It's only fitting, then, that he finally made a movie about the subject. Based on an idea by Neve Campbell, who also produced and stars in the film, The Company features few of the elements that typically identify an Altman project. There are no intricate and eccentrically dovetailing storylines, no biting satirical edge, no loopy outbursts from the actors, hardly even a trace of that trademark overlapping dialogue.

This is a dance movie curiously free of ego or artifice. The Company is about the art of dance itself, not necessarily about the people who perform that art, and certainly not about the actors playing those people. In fact, aside from Campbell and two other notable stars (Malcolm McDowell and James Dean clone du jour James Franco), the cast is largely free of professional actors. Most of the parts are played by actual dancers from Chicago's Joffrey Ballet.

Campbell (who was a dancer before getting into acting), plays a Joffrey ballerina named Ry, and most of the movie essentially functions as a filmed record of the troupe in rehearsal and in performance. In between, we get a bit of romance (mostly between Campbell and Franco, set to multiple renditions of "My Funny Valentine"), a smidgen of tension, and some Altmanesque observations on the behind-the-scenes jockeying for power, the money raising, the ego stroking — the politics of the ballet biz.

Mostly, though, what passes here for story seems almost like window dressing. The Company is the latest in a long line of Altman films in which plot is a byproduct of the specific worlds where the movies are set (the country music scene in Nashville, the fashion industry in Pret a Porter, etc.). And yet, more than any other Altman movie I can think of, The Company allows process to almost gobble up the plot.

What we get instead are a series of dances recorded at various stages of development by cameras that glide gracefully but unobtrusively alongside the performers. Altman favors mostly medium and long shots, giving us a palpable sense of the dancers' connection to one another. The cumulative effect is almost as if we're witnessing a community of movement in which the individual dancers have become one extended organism, a body of bodies. Altman's camera rarely calls attention to itself and away from the dance, displaying an unfussy reverence toward its subject that recalls what Bergman did for Mozart in The Magic Flute.

The Company goes about its business in a concise, meticulous fashion that becomes both its blessing and its curse. One of the chief pleasures in an Altman film has always been the way the director organizes and manages chaos, and it often seems as if The Company suffers from a lack of that conspicuously unruly energy. There's plenty of passion here, but little of the sometimes unwieldy flopping about of images, ideas and story arcs that have often been so crucial to Altman's movies. The Company has plenty of strengths, but it might just be a bit too precise and tidy for its own good.

New Year's Resolutions from Madstone

It looks like Tampa's Madstone Theaters may finally be ready to start making good on all those promises it made when it opened last fall. That means easing off the Mona Lisa's Smile fare and dedicating itself to providing something genuinely new and different for Bay area movie-lovers.

Some of those classic foreign films we've been waiting for are finally on the way, beginning with Jules Dassin's great French heist film Rififi on Feb. 12 (accompanied, naturally enough, by a wine tasting). Another legendary Gallic gangster film, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Circle Rouge (The Red Circle), follows for a week-long run beginning on March 11. Both screenings will feature the reportedly gorgeous, restored prints that have been circulating around the country.

Lest we forget that film is called "the seventh art" because it's a combination of the other six, Madstone affirms its commitment to all the arts with some very welcome upcoming events. Freelance book editor and former English professor Willy Mathes will be the moderator for The Writers Circle, a free monthly workshop where aspiring writers and published professionals alike can share their material and receive feedback from their peers. Meetings are open to the public and will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. Contact Mathes at [email protected] yahoo.com or by calling 813-232-2946.

Meanwhile, Madstone will be going into gallery mode with an exhibit of mixed-media works by contemporary local artists including John Vitale, Kathy Olivas, Josh Sullivan, Courtney Kessel, Mark Michaels, Paul Vitale, Dennis Gaston, Bask and Jorge Vidal. The artwork is from the collection of Doug Hadden, a pillar of the arts community and owner of the award-winning Industrial Strength Stage and Lighting, and will be on display at Madstone until April. An opening reception will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 6.

Perhaps the most exciting news for film buffs is Madstone's partnering with the University of Tampa for a 13-week series of seminars on world cinema. The classes will be taught by renowned filmmaker and UT professor Rob Tregenza, who will present a different film every week and lead a discussion after the screening. The series, which began on Jan. 27 with Jean Luc Godard's Breathless, will include masterpieces such as Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake (2/3), Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (2/17) and Werner Herzog's Aguirre (3/2). Other gems in this highly recommended series include Moshen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh (3/16), Zhang Yimou's Story of Qui Jui (3/23), Shohei Imamura's The Eel (3/30), Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent, and Godard's Helas Pour Moi.

The world cinema seminar will meet at Madstone on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m., and is open to the general public as an audited course. To register call Jane Lawler at the University of Tampa at 813-253-6249, and refer to: Com 444L: Special Topics in Contemporary World Cinema.

That's Entertainment!If Altman's The Company whets your appetite for fancy hoofing, there's a whole lot more dancing, and singing too, to be had in Tarpon Springs over the next week or so. The sixth annual Sol Peska Film Festival is a 10-day celebration of the Hollywood musical (with a few nods to international efforts thrown in).

From Jan. 30 to Feb. 8, the festival will present classics such as Top Hat, 42nd Street and The Bandwagon, pop landmarks like Jailhouse Rock and A Hard Day's Night and more contemporary fare such as Chicago. There's even a modern Bollywood blockbuster thrown into the mix (Devdas on Feb. 6), as well as Powell-Pressberger's glorious The Red Shoes (Feb. 7) for those seeking artsier enlightenment. Other highlights of the 30-film event include a rare presentation of ragtime pianist Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha (Feb. 8) and the African-American musical Cabin in the Sky, introduced by St. Pete Times columnist Eric Deggans.

The Sol Peska Film Festival takes place at the Tarpon Springs Library, the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, and the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Tarpon Springs. For addresses and information, call 727-937-3164 or 727-944-3042.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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