13 June 2006

current cinema: A Prairie Home Companion


starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen, and Maya Rudolph
written by: Garrison Keillor, from the story by Keillor and Ken LaZebnik
directed by: Robert Altman
PG-13, 105 min, 2006, USA

Gentle and unassuming, with the warmth and friendliness of an old friend, Garrison Keillor's iconic radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" has occupied a small niche of the American airwaves for nearly 30 years[1]. Here now comes the film version of that public radio institution, done with a quiet inoffensive charm by master filmmaker Robert Altman, the result being a thoroughly enjoyable and faithful rendering of the show and a cinematic delight for, dare I say it, the entire family.

The film's story, such as it is, revolves around the recent sale of the radio station to some media conglomerate in Texas, who wants to turn the theatre into a parking lot, effectively putting the show out of business and making this the final show. Keillor, the show's leader and host, has little interest in making any sort of fuss over the impending end, despite the objections of several members of the cast. Meanwhile, private eye and head of security Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) is busy tracking down the dangerous woman in the white trench-coat (Virginia Madsen) and trying to convince the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) that to end the show would be a great disservice. All of this occurs during the show, broadcast live in front of an audience, but this being an Altman film, the plot has little to do with what the film is really about. Altman's main focus is instead the interplay between various members of his ensemble cast and the inter-workings of a radio show behind the scenes. The plot is merely a structure around which the characters can revolve.

Keillor's script is structured like a radio play, with Guy Noir as the occasional narrator, mostly because if you're going to do an old radio play, you might as well have a private eye narrator, and partly because Guy Noir is one of Keillor's recurring characters. And if you're going to have Guy Noir as the narrator, then you have to have a dangerous woman. Keillor's master-stroke, though, is to make the dangerous woman an angel of death, a fitting metaphor for a radio show on it's last run. She could be coming for the Axeman or any member of the cast or for the show itself or even for the aspect of Americana that the show invokes, but it isn't really important in the end, because she represents the passage of time that serves as the film's unstated antagonist. The bad guy isn't really the Axeman or his Texas corporation (although, it certainly isn't the hero), but the rapidly progressing world that makes such things possible. But no one handles such change better than Keillor, who's motto is that every show is the last show. In a great backstage scene, he sits quietly as the dangerous woman informs him that she is an angel of death, nonchalantly eating an apple. I guess when you've been doing live radio for 30 years, not even death can startle you.

Nor, I imagine, would it warrant much more than an "oh really?" from Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep), who along with Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) forms the singing Johnson sisters. Streep plays Yolanda as something of a Minnesotan housewife prone to moments of hysteria. She flutters through the film, absent-minded and emotional. She shows up minutes before the show goes on the air, her daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) in tow, and remarks that they have plenty of time. The entire radio cast, for that matter, shows a surprising lack of concern for the contents of the program. Other than figuring out what song they'll sing, no seems to be giving much thought to the proceedings on-stage. Keillor seems more interested in telling numerous accounts of how he got into radio, Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson) are busy trying to impress Lola, and Guy Noir can be seen wandering amongst the band. They posses an easy-going professionalism that appear deceptively simple, giving the audience the impression that it can't be all that hard, but this is a hard-won professionalism, perfected over 30 years. That it comes off as effortless is a testament to it's power.

The same can be said for Altman's direction, which can easily be confused with a complete lack of direction. His camera floats through the proceedings, moving from the stage to the wings to backstage with little distinction. To Altman, the proceedings backstage are as important as what's being broadcast over the radio--sometimes even more important--and quite often he's right. The fact that Keillor ignores the singing on-stage in favor of telling a story or that he calmly eats an apple while talking to an angel during the break, says a lot for the mentality both of Keillor and his cronies and Altman himself. It's a common theme in Altman's work that allows A Prairie Home Companion to be a perfect fit into his filmography. It is a film that perhaps only Altman could have made. It is not, by any stretch of imagination, a great film, for much like the radio show it depicts, it has no such ambitions and would be embarrassed to be considered as such. But, it is a whimsical delight, the likes of which is rare, too good-natured to be thought of with anything but fondness. In the end, A Prairie Home Companion is destined to settle into the corner of a great number of DVD collections, waiting for a rainy day or a cold winter night when it might warm the soul, cinematic comfort food to delight the senses.

[1] The first broadcast was on 6 July, 1974. There were 12 people in attendance. It was off the air for two years in the 80's. For those unfamiliar with the show, the web page has audio archives for your listening pleasure.


levi said...

"too good-natured to be thought of with anything but fondness"

- effectively sums up my feelings towards A Prairie Home Companion (the radio show). I've always liked Keillor's understated yet sharp and carefully crafted wit, especially in his writing.