Anyone with a digital camera can crank out independent films these days, and it's not unusual for nascent auteurs to be discovered, celebrated and made rich. When Hollywood was all-powerful, though, pioneers like Robert Altman risked everything to buck the system. It's astonishing that the maverick director, who recently turned 79, is still a vital force in a business generally dominated by the young.
Altman's latest venture, The Company, opens at The Savoy in Montpelier on March 12. This may not be the best movie he's ever made, but it's humming with fresh ideas. His characteristic subtlety and typical overlapping dialogue remain intact.
The story, about a ballet troupe, is so simple it's almost nonexistent. Yet this is a man who has brought layers of complexity to every project -- such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971 and Gosford Park in 2001 -- for more than half a century.
Here's what Altman wrote in the production notes for The Company: "Dancers do the impossible. They are poorly paid. And yet we all want to be them. They are that beautiful, that vulnerable, that expressive. They might as well be butterflies."
You can almost feel the soft wings of his words brushing against your cheek. And while watching him convey that inspiration onscreen, you might just want to fly. Let the world of indie wannabes take note: Altman and his cinematographer Andew Dunn have generated visual magic with a digital camera.
Barbara Turner, who is the mother of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, wrote the script. The picture zeroes in on one particular artist. Ry, played by real-life dancer and thespian Neve Campbell, is a rising star in the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Her big professional moment in the spotlight arrives after another company member is injured.
Malcolm McDowell portrays Alberto, the Joffrey's temperamental, demanding and patriarchal director. He adds a delicious note of friction to the proceedings, which otherwise unfold mostly with documentary-like equanimity as the film follows people who must work hard and live frugally.
Ry has just been jilted by a fellow member of the troupe, but soon finds love with a handsome chef (James Franco). Altman sweetens the romantic mood throughout the film with a soundtrack that features versions of "My Funny Valentine" by the likes of Chet Baker, Elvis Costello and the Kronos Quartet.
The plot, however, is secondary to the movement. The performance sequences have breathtaking scope and dramatic tension. At an outdoor venue, Ry and a partner never lose their composure on stage as rain begins to pour down. Pages of the orchestra's "My Funny Valentine" sheet music are carried off by the wind. Audience umbrellas open up. Thunder. Lightning. Those butterflies dance up a storm.
Speaking of nascent auteurs -- with or without digital technology -- numerous Vermonters are currently crafting cinema. Three new documentaries will be screened this month.
Political pundits have shifted their focus from Soccer Moms to NASCAR Dads, and that's good timing for Rookies at the Road by Gary Miller and Nat Winthrop. The film tracks three young local stock-car drivers who race at Thunder Road in Barre "as they experience moments of glory and frustration, battling their way through crashes and competitors," according to a press release.
In their coming-of-age story, which will debut March 16 at the Barre Opera House, Miller and Winthrop try to capture what they describe as "a vibrant subculture of rural America."
Rookies at the Road is also screening at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier. Ditto Beyond 88 Keys, by Middlesex resident Sue Bittman. She decided to craft this portrait of classical pianist Michael Arnowitt -- who has been challenged by recent eyesight problems -- after he accompanied her singing at a 2001 recital.
"His accompaniment was so evocative," says Bettmann, "that the song, Sometimes in the Darkness,' was more moving than it had ever been before, and it's a very moving song."
On March 25 and 27, the festival will also feature You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller. It's a profile of Howard Zinn, an 82-year-old historian, educator, author, civil-rights hero and peace activist from Massachusetts. Notables such as Tom Hayden, Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky offer insights about the elder statesman of progressive politics.
For more information on Rookies at the Road, call 476-8188. Details about the Green Mountain Film Festival are available at http://www.savoythe ater.com/gmff or, after March 15, by calling 793-7423.