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June 19, 2006

Moviegoing: "A Prairie Home Companion"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Although I've never enjoyed the radio show, I loved -- and make that triple L-U-V'd -- Robert Altman's new film, "A Prairie Home Companion." I found it magical and transporting: touching, funny, engrossing, conceptually daring, and "alive" to the max. Rich in detail and filigree, full of seductively intimate golden-crimsons and emeralds, it has enough aural texture and visual sumptuousness for ten films. (Cinematography: Ed Lachman. Production design: Dina Goldman. Costumes: Catherine Marie Thomas. I'd like to list a sound person too, but IMDB is unclear on who was in charge of film's sound department.) For the Altman buffs out there: "Prairie" is like a warm-and-sweet, chamber-dramedy version of "Nashville," only with metaphorical-Americana touches resembling those in "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean," and tonally in the retrospective, allegorical, fable-like mode of "Cookie's Fortune."

Though the film -- half cultural anthropology about how Midwesterners deal with life's big moments, and half a melancholy backstage musical comedy -- is set almost entirely inside a theater, it's also a loving sweep through a lot of American art history: Twain, Fitzgerald, and the hardboiled dick; the western and the tall tale; Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. Weak on storyline and action, it's nonetheless focused and controlled -- more a "Tempest"-like poetic picture of life than a narrative: We live among spirits and archetypes; death and beauty are never more than a few steps away; gallantry, generosity, humor, and belief carry us through ... It's a jewelbox and a metaphysical romance, yet it's fully inhabited and embodied, and it never stops rolling along.


Lindsay Lohan and Meryl Streep

Filmgoing tip: Watch how Altman gets you focused on his performers' flesh, and how he uses performance as his central metaphor -- he has his reasons for suggesting how much a theater can resemble a church. There are moments when Meryl Streep's face seems to have collapsed. Yet at other moments -- especially when she's belting out a song (who knew she was such a good belter?) -- her face is radiant and transformed by joy. Despite life's trials, most of us somehow find ways to keep moving forward, and even to give a little more than we take. Garrison Keillor -- with his bulldog head, his massive physique, and his out-of-it moonchild manner -- moves through the movie surprisingly delicately. He's like a benevolent visitor from another planet -- an Asperger-y Prospero, never blind to the depths below yet unable to understand why anyone should choose to spend too much time dwelling in them.

I loved the film so much that I was surprised, when I caught up with its reviews online, by how many of them seemed grudging and condescending even when they were positive. Here's a typical example. It isn't "The Player," it isn't "McCabe" ... Do the reviewers think that, in his 80s, Altman should be making the kinds of movies they loved him for making when he was 50 and 60? Yet its old-person's p-o-v is one of the many things to be treasured about the film. It's a rare and deeply-moving privilege, dammit, to have the chance to enjoy a full-scale, unimpaired film made by a great artist in his 80s. Small hint: The way that past and present, reality and fiction, the material world and the spirit world, transcendent beauty and rude humor mingle in the film is how life can start to look the more you grow aware of its fragility. But maybe these reviewers simply weren't turned on or touched/amused by the film. Roger Ebert's review was an exception; Ebert seems to have found "Prairie Home Companion" as funny, as eccentrically dreamy, and as emotionally opulent a treat as I did.


Ed Lachman and Robert Altman

I wrote about "The Company," another recent Altman film, here. Interesting to learn that Altman and Lachman shot "A Prairie Home Companion" on high definition video. For my money, it's the first film shot digitally that has the kind of imagination-sparking sensuality that movies have always been loved for.

This Criterion Collection forum page reprints a number of production stories about the movie. In Filmmaker magazine, Matthew Ross interviews Altman at length.



posted by Michael at June 19, 2006


I've always felt like I was humoring friends by bearing the pompous, overwrought, only sporadically funny, radio show. I humored a friend by seeing this film, and I, too, was completely floored. Altman creates a perfect environment for a strange meditation on life and death, several actors take their conventional personae up an extra notch (Kline especially), and it's capped by Keillor's not-to-subtle jab at those who, like me, never got the raison d'etre of the radio program, or for that matter, thought he had an ounce of self-awareness.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 19, 2006 3:17 AM

Like you, I enjoyed Altman's alternative unvicerse take on PHC. I think that shooting within the confines of the Fitzgerald Theatre (or its resemblance) sharpened his take. Tomlin's & Streep's scenes were truly magic; acting can't get better than the times the two are riffing.
My only regret is that ALtman didn't take full advantage of the talent alreadyt there, specifically Sue Scott, the multi-voiced participant in so many of PHC's pieces.

What was certainly evident was how great of a time the actors were having doing the movie. I know most of that is Altman's doing...but I'm hoping at least a measurable reason was the material offered by Keillor's writing. Two nights after seeing the movie, a local PBS station was re-broadcasting the 30th Anniversary Show of PHC as part of its semi-monthly fund-raising. A lot of the pieces on stage on that night were resurrected for the movie, it seemed. And that lovely lovely band that plays each Saturday and also in the movie. Visually, a group for the radio not tv/movies; but the sounds they produce?! Absolutely gorgeous.

Hope your write-up spurs more people to see the movie, not to drum up listenership for PHC, but to see another gem from the ever-evolving and always-interesting Mr. Altman.

Posted by: Darkoze on June 19, 2006 7:37 AM

I really need to see this movie--kept thinking about it while editing a writer's collection of short stories. There's something about the voice and tone of the times that pulls you in--nostalgia?

Since I'm also committed to reading all the classics in novels right now, I may be biased towards an era of Faulkner and McCullers where the depth of the characters prevails.

Posted by: susan on June 19, 2006 8:24 AM

Why does Garrison Keillor have to ruin his fairly decent sense of humor and great story telling skills with gratuitous insertions of all-right-thinking-people-agree-with-me-of-course-makes-you-want-to-throw-up political horse pucky?!

Posted by: ricpic on June 19, 2006 10:33 AM

Oh, my. The BF is an enormo-fan of PHC (he makes the heroin-flowing-through-veins sound at the first notes of the intro) and I've learned to like *parts* of it (he is a primo storyteller, as ricpic points out), although I run screaming from the room when GK insists on mucking things up with his horrible singing.

But I've resisted seeing this movie. I AM STILL resisting seeing this movie. It's a visceral, self-protective action. So are you super-dee-duper sure on this, Michael? That I'm really going to love it? Because I don't want to walk out of the theater wishing for those two hours of my life back.


Posted by: communicatrix on June 19, 2006 11:11 AM

Like a couple of the commenters here I used to scorn the show when I was younger as politico-socio comfort food for the NPR set. I like the show more now that I'm older and have mostly gotten over my hangups about NPR. It seems dreamier, more free-associational, and less calculated now than it did in the past--or maybe it's just me, tuning into different things.

I'm going to see the movie this week, and love Altman as much as Michael does--however, I do think it's worth throwing a little more credit Keillor's way than this post and the commenters seem willing to.

Posted by: Steve on June 19, 2006 11:19 AM

Well, Michael, I'll go see this now.

I'm surprised Altman and Keillor make such a good pair. Altman has a basic suspicion and unhappiness with the world that make him an unlikely director for this movie, I would think. He makes so many of his characters lost and selfish, while Keillor despite what sometimes can seem like a gruff, curmodgeonly, woebegone manner, believes in the transcendent goodness of people.

I presume Keillor wins in the character of the film and its characters?

Posted by: john on June 19, 2006 11:25 AM

I can't decide if I like or dislike Keillor. I've gone back and forth for years. Maybe that's what he's going for?

His singing. Wow. It's really annoying. I can't tell if he toungue in cheek knows it's annoying and does it anyway or if he's sincere or what.

He's like the Smiths. Their music was all angsty, but there was also irony about the angst, and irony about the irony. I guess all strong art is ambigious.

Posted by: Brian on June 19, 2006 11:53 AM

J. Goard - That's a really perceptive way of putting it. Catches the essence of the movie, and is far shorter than my posting too, darn it.

Darkoze -- It's a real celebration of performers and performance, isn't it? It's funny: the movie made me feel fond of a whole world (Keillor's radio show) that had never meant a thing to me before.

Susan -- Congrats on the short-story collection you're editing. I think you might really enjoy Altman's way of riffing on classic American art in the movie.

Ricpic -- Does Keillor tend to do that? Honestly, I never listened to more than about five minutes of his show. Somehow the whole thing never clicked for me. Maybe he feels he has to throw bones at the NPR audience?

Communicatrix -- You've got a 2Blowhards money-back/time-back guarantee on that one. Well, at least I can say that I never liked the show, but the movie really got to me. I thnk that's partly because Altman encourages you to take the whole thing metaphorically. You don't need to think the show is the greatest thing ever to be touched by the way performers love putting on shows, and audiences pitch in too, etc ... I guess Keillor himself is onscreen a fair amount, but to my mind me was just another ingredient in the Altman soup. But I don't know. Maybe some people, who know or care more about the material than I do, take the film as an extension of Keillor's show. I took it as the pretext for the latest episode in the ongoing Altman comic soap opera.

Steve -- Please let us know how you react.

John -- Altman in his old age seems to be a lot less prone to misanthropy than he used to be. There's still a lot of satire floating around. But the general feeling is "life is fragile and passing. Better to celebrate it and enjoy what we can and help each other through as best we can." Although now that you point it out, maybe it's the tension (or harmony) between Keillor's view and Altman's view that really makes the film work. Hmm.

Brian -- That gentle-kidding manner of Keillor's is a hard one to figure, isn't it? Sometimes I think it's harmless, sometimes it strikes me a s poisonous. And I get bugged by nice Midwestern audiences lapping it up. But maybe I'm the one missing the point. For all I know he's a giant and a genius.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2006 2:22 PM

Sorry Michael,
Can't resist one more quip. The last scene of the movie where four of the main characters are jammed into the diner booth? The reactions, starting with Kevin Kline's scene-chewing pointing-of-fingers, upon catching site of the (merciful) Angel of Death (and the real angel should only look as good as Virginia Madsen), are priceless. Aging has done all of their faces well, even though Keillor STILL looks way too young for how old he really is (....just think of the title of that Beatles' song)

Posted by: DArkoze on June 19, 2006 3:16 PM

I’m a nice Midwestern boy who likes books and old songs and stuff myself, and I don’t know what to do with that Keillor schtick anymore, either.

I read Lake Woebegone Days when I was in college, and was just floored by it – I thought it near-genius. Upon the more measured re-reading of adulthood, I still think it’s one of the better contemporary American – certainly Midwestern, at least – novels around. It’s very funny at points, since the whole ‘every Norwegian farmer’s above average’ thing was fresh. It’s hard to remember that, isn’t it, in that Keillor’s now just about the world’s most pidgeon-holeable writer? And there’s that dark, furious sequence of subtexts/footnotes aping Luther’s 95 Theses about midway through LWD which is sheer brilliance.

But if Keillor reached the mountaintop way back then, he’s been calling off his expeditions ever since. The whole string of novels he’s put out are often amusing, but never genuinely noteworthy.

I too can’t take PHC more than once in a great while. In the great debate on whether he’s laughing at/laughing with, I fear the needle has tipped pretty decisively into the ‘at’ zone, if it wasn’t there all along. But he's very, very clever in one sense: he learned early on that there's a kind of 'zone of optimal mockery' of midwesterners that will both fulfill the stereotypes non-midwesterners hold of them, while still appealing to midwesterners themselves (at least some of them) who are willing to suck up the insults because they're nice, and because they don't want to be perceived as provincials.

But I am eager to see the movie – but it may take me a while to get hold of it here in Hong Kong. That’s not the kind of film that opens here concurrently with the States!

Posted by: mr tall on June 19, 2006 8:58 PM

Re: "nice Midwestern audiences lapping it up", of course he's making fun of us and we laugh with along with him. Self deprecating humor is a midwestern staple as we don't take ourselves as seriously as those on the coasts. I don't care for much of his show, but the "News from Lake Woebegon" is great, way more subversive than Howard Stern in his wildest dreams.

Posted by: Bradamante on June 20, 2006 8:58 AM

DArkose --

I couldn't agree more about the fingers.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 22, 2006 4:02 AM

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