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The Long Goodbye: Robert Altman?s A Prairie Home Companion

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Friday, June 09, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion
Directed by Robert Altman
Opens nationwide on Friday

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

Based on admittedly limited exposure, I've never fallen for Garrison Keillor's “Prairie Home Companion.” There are a couple of reasons for this: in part it's because I tend to gravitate to comedy that's on the loud and stupid side, and so I sympathized with Homer in that Simpsons episode where, watching a wry, dry, Keillor-type monologist on TV, he starts pounding the box and demanding it “Be more funny.” Beyond that, I am a product of the region for which Mr. Keillor acts as unofficial spokesman, that amorphous space known as The Midwest, and I've always been antsy about broad regional generalities. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, 700 miles downriver from Keillor's home base, St. Paul, Minnesota, and my very localized sense of regional identity doesn't expand outside of the I-275 belt. I can't summon up more than a blip of kinship with people from Hamilton, a half hour up the highway. So when Keillor says, as quoted in the film's press kit, “Mr. Altman's not given to bullshit and flattery, and that's a Midwestern trait,” it seems reductive. My sense of self takes umbrage — I think, “Hey, I'm not like that.”

That said, what a lovely, funny surprise Prairie Home Companion, scripted by Keillor and directed by Robert Altman, makes as a movie! The film glides between the live stage performance of the titular musical variety show, hosted by familiar, owl-browed emcee “G.K.” (Keillor, big and stooped, with a broad red tie that hangs down to zipper-level), and the show's backstage scramble involving performers, producers, and personnel at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. Routines reappearing tonight include a singing cowboy duo, Dusty and Lefty (carry-overs from the radio program, played here by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly); the Johnson sisters, Yolonda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin); and country warbler Chuck Akers (a touchingly faded L.Q. Jones), all backed by The Guys All-Star Shoe Band. As per Altman tradition, the actors sing live, with their own voices, and through a full program of songs: Jones gladly lets go the gray wisp of his voice to the Carter Family's “You Have Been a Friend to Me,” Streep can really sing (and does), Keillor drops by to harmonize. Everything works, first and most importantly, on the level of a flat-out entertaining hootenanny — you want to shake the performer's hands on the way out. Dusty and Lefty's cheeky song “Bad Jokes” is dumb and crazily charming; Tom Keith's sound-effects man one-ups Police Academy's Michael Winslow; everything is in good, cornpone fun.

Away from the stage-enforced coherence, the theater's wings are a jostle of period-piece eccentrics, all drawn together by the larger anachronism of a still-broadcasting radio variety show (“the kind that died 50 years ago”) circa Right Now A.D. Theater security Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), introduced as he leaves a Hopper metal-box diner, is a pin-striped putz who talks hard-boiled Chandlerisms and pratfalls slapstick. Yolonda and Rhonda's many-mirrored dressing room is a museum of faded postcards and tonics that haven't been produced for 40 years where the gals yammer about back-remember-when they were still a family act and about doin' the county fair circuit, while Yolonda's sour teenaged daughter (Lindsay Lohan) sulks and writes gloomy poetry on her jeans. The movie's pretext for plot comes in the threat of the pitiless changed times crashing in on this biosphere of outmoded Americana. The show is newly under the controlling corporate interest of Texas real estate, entirely indifferent to “Prairie Home”'s sense of tradition or of community, or indeed to anything but the bottom line (a double feature with Weird Al's UHF seems apt). The revelation is slow to spread, then staunchly ignored, that this will be the final broadcast. A terse overseer of the Texas firm, the aptly named Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), drifts into the theater as the show's winding down, surveying what will soon be surface parking. He's never heard of Scott Fitzgerald. He doesn't have time to read romances.

The movie is suffused with the piquant sadness in the passing of old, wonderful things, a sense of loss perhaps built into the show (it was named after a cemetery in Moorhead, MN). There is death; an angel (Virginia Madsen) meshes into the behind-the-scenes bustle to collect a soul. There is also the melancholy of a beloved institution disappearing, the end of a something that they just don't make anymore: it's peeking through the windows of a favorite restaurant to see its interior gutted and bare, it's the shortstop who played his whole career for one team retiring after 18 seasons, it's Coney Island being smashed into dust that smells like 1915. It's smoothing over the wrinkles of another America that spoke with more voices, and stranger ones — the country that David Staebler in The King of Marvin Gardens addressed, maybe, or the country Keillor's fellow Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman saw through radio waves in Scorsese's superlative Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. The administration of G.K. manfully keeps the wake lively and ever above mawkishness, reminding everyone to “keep the humor dry,” and insisting that “we don't look back in radio.” The air of unportentous pathos is nicely summed up by Lefty's reaction to the expiration of one of the show's old-timers: he cries his eyes out and then leaks out a fart. In a recent Guardian interview, 80-year-old Altman was appropriately pragmatic about his own mortality: “That's life, nothing particular about it. Just an occurrence.”

In a largely laudatory appraisal of Prairie Home for the most recent Film Comment, critic Kent Jones postulates that something of the film's serene charm comes as a result of Altman escaping his compulsion to court “contemporary relevance.” I'm not sure I agree. The director has quantified himself, many times, in as many words, as some kind of political filmmaker, and his life's work is full of movies that buzz around specifically American phenomena. So often the cross-pollination between performance and our national myth-making process is built into his work; it's in the way Jennifer Jason Leigh in Kansas City lifts her tough-cookie moll act, intact, from the bottom half of cheapie gangster double-bills; it's in Nashville's turgid Bicentennial overture “We Must Be Doing Something Right (To Last 200 Years)”; it's everywhere in Buffalo Bill and the Indians.

 

Without that precedent I might not think about it, but in watching Prairie Home Companion, a movie as interested in performance as anything Altman's done, I wanted to pin down what myth it was that these songs were embellishing. It's remarkable how charitable, on the whole, this movie feels; in all of the previous examples, the vision of pop and people is at best tangled, at worst jaundiced. Prairie Home, by contrast, seems close in spirit to the exultance of Jonathan Demme's recent, sublimely saccharine doc Neil Young: Heart of Gold, both in its vision of art as a communal bonding agent (Altman is used to making his set a family affair — the credit scrolls of his films usually reveal at least a few of his brood), and in the diaphanous, slightly ethereal quality of both films' photography (Prairie Home is blessed by Ed Lachman's nostalgically warm Hi-Def lensing). I think this may be the first Robert Altman film where music tells a myth that its director deeply wants to believe in: the ideal of the inland American's basic decency and humanity. Maybe I'm extrapolating too much, but bear with me: Altman's an outspoken lefty, with a well-known penchant for threatening to move to France when a Republican takes office; Keillor came out loud and proud during the 2004 election season as a Paul Wellstone Democrat, publishing a treatise, Homegrown Democrat, on Minnesota's political legacy from the “no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway.” The humble heartland Democrat's ideal expressed in Keillor's book — decency — is the only existent liberal mythology to match the Right's manifold melodramatic City on a Hill/Apostles of Liberty/Left Behind narratives. So Joe Welch's famous question to Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin — for shame!), “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”, resurrected in last year's Good Night, and Good Luck, became a rallying cry for good liberals, something which we secretly daydreamed ourselves grilling G.W. with at his war crimes tribunal. Of his home, Keillor is proud to point out that “not even one precinct in St. Paul voted for our current U.S. senator even though in his days as a Democrat he was mayor of St. Paul — that's how Democratic we are” — and I think it's no coincidence that the disinterested interests responsible for shuffling “Prairie Home” off these mortal airwaves come from the avaricious Lone Star state, point of origin of a certain sitting Republican President. (One backstage denizen unsuccessfully tries to convince herself that these aren't such bad people, after all: ““Texans — sure, they talk funny… and their eyes don't focus, and their flesh is rotting and falling off.”)

So I'm not convinced that Prairie Home's amiable “Let's put on a show” bobble is quite apolitical. The movie's assertion is that America is being drained of its idiosyncrasy, and the implication is that those responsible are mostly Texans who don't have time to read romances or, to borrow the definition of Republicans by the suspiciously Keillor-like narrator of Keillor's recent novel Love Me, “bullet-headed ideologues devoted to prisons and sterile office parks and McMansion developments.” Which is why I was a little unsettled to see Madsen's angel finally intervening on the side of G.K. and his merrie band, taking care of Axeman, if not of the insurmountable interests he represents. I've always been a bit wary — thanks to that Zimmerman kid who declared that “the country I come from is called Midwest” — of those people who claim to “have God on their side.” We Midwesterners are just like that, I guess.

  


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