A Prairie Home Companion
It’s not hard to figure out why Robert Altman was the center of attention with last summer’s A Prairie Home Companion — even though we didn’t know at the time of its release that it would be his final movie.
Long before his honorary Oscar in March 2006, Altman was cool — a stubborn, renegade filmmaker whose biggest head-scratcher (Popeye) has somehow been transformed into an indicator of his unconventional greatness. His death in November merely gave Altman permanent ownership of A Prairie Home Companion, concerned as it is with passing, and the proper way to commemorate something that is gone.
But another reason that Altman was the focus — beyond film culture’s oftentimes-ridiculous bias toward directors — was that the alternative would be to talk about quaint, old-fashioned, uncool-even-by-public-radio-standards Garrison Keillor, who wrote the script.
Yet while A Prairie Home Companion is undoubtedly an Altman picture, it is most accurately a Prairie Home Companion picture, which is to say that it’s a Garrison Keillor picture. Which is to say that it revels in being uncool. In a coolly Altman way.
The movie has plenty of Altman trademarks — particularly the large, stellar cast, its casual opposition to advancing a plot, and the overlapping dialogue — and it is unquestionably handsomely made. Mirrors make regular appearances, serving as an elegant visual reminder that we can look forward without losing sight of what’s behind us. (Or that we can look forward but only see the past. Or something else.)
Yet the movie’s distinguishing characteristic is clearly drawn from Keillor: unsentimental wistfulness. It is a yearning for the good old days when a radio variety show such as Keillor’s was the norm rather than an anachronism. But yearning is not productive, and Keillor is more interested in re-creating the past than memorializing it. His form of remembrance is doing, because wanting and crying never brought the dead back to life. (Neither does doing raise the dead, but that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?)
This is an honest and sensible way of living one’s life, but it can be maddening. When one of your performers dies during what might be your final broadcast, oughtn’t these things be acknowledged? Keillor says no. “How about just a moment of silence?” he’s asked in the movie. “Silence on the radio,” he replies. “I don’t know how that works.”
Keillor’s matter-of-factness is a necessary balance to the useless breakdowns and sentimentality around him. A Prairie Home Companion doesn’t endorse his character’s way of dealing with crisis and death, but it expands the range of possibilities, and allows the audience to find a happy middle.
Here we must distinguish between A Prairie Home Companion — the popular public-radio program — and its fictional equivalent. In the movie, there is no Lake Wobegon, and Guy Noir is a bumbling security guard rather than a narrative emphasis of the show. In the movie, Keillor and his gang are probably not syndicated nationally, and are so minor in the scheme of things that a corporation’s plan to turn A Prairie Home Companion’s theater into a parking lot threatens to shut down the show forever.
The real-life Keillor — a host and writer of some renown, with bestselling books to his credit, and often passionately engaged in the world — is in the movie reduced to an emotionally paralyzed professional. His ex-girlfriend (Meryl Streep) improvises during one of his insufferable “Duck Tape” sketches, bitterly incorporating his many failings into her lines. He not only charges on with the sketch but seems genuinely unfazed, even as she is about to cry; his character represents the comedy of obliviousness.
As central as he is to the real radio show, Keillor the actor is nearly peripheral to the movie, which we might attribute to his insistence (as the screenwriter) on keeping himself on the margins. (It’s that Midwestern modesty.) A Prairie Home Companion is deferential to the radio show’s secondary performers.
There are practical considerations, of course, for putting Keillor in the background. While he is a stage performer, he is not a film actor, and putting him alongside Streep for more than a few minutes would be unwise. Keillor is not even regular-guy handsome, let alone movie-guy handsome, so he looks downright ugly, even next to John C. Reilly.
The movie is filled with splendid performers — including Streep, Reilly, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Kline — but they don’t have much to do in terms of acting. Those with musical numbers deliver their routines with heart and good cheer, and that’s about all that’s required of them.
Keillor might be playing fifth, sixth, or seventh banana here, but he holds your interest more than anybody else — a cipher because of his aggressive detachment. He is nearly invisible because he’s a dispassionate master who can’t be bothered with inconveniences such as death. While the other performers are emotional, he’s the only rational one in the bunch, aware of the triviality of entertainment and his own small place in the world. He’s the type of disengaged person who might find being a parking-lot attendant a perfectly acceptable vocation.
And he’s downright unflappable. When a woman tells him that she crashed her car and died because she laughed at a Prairie Home Companion joke that wasn’t remotely funny, he apologizes quickly — a politeness reflex — for her untimely demise. And then he tries to explain the joke.
She is the Angel of Death, or an Angel of Death, and she’s referred to in the credits (mutedly of course) as Dangerous Woman. That fanciful side of A Prairie Home Companion — Kline as Noir, and death personified by the always luminous Virgina Madsen — represents another expansion of possibilities, a reminder that this is not a celebration of the real-life show but a fantasy and metaphor.
It’s that context that gives the movie its modest heft. A Prairie Home Companion will be remembered for its appropriateness as Altman’s final work, but Keillor deserves much of the credit for its artistic success. Not many people can write a light, resonant comedy about death; Garrison Keillor did.