Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion

GK: We don't look back in radio. That's the beauty of it. Nobody gets old, nobody dies. We just keep on goin'. 
Lola: What if you died?
GK: I will. 
Lola: And you don't want people to remember you? 
GK: I don't want them to be told to remember me.

In A Prairie Home Companion (2006), GK, a character played by Garrison Keillor and based on himself (he also wrote the script), stars in "A Prairie Home Companion," a radio show loosely based on the same show Keillor hosts on public radio. The fictional version of the radio show in the film is nearing the  end of its run: playing to a half-full theater, and having been bought out by a big corporation, its fictional flagship station, WLT (whose call letters mean "with lettuce and tomato," as befitting of the film's midwestern bonhomie as anything else), the show we witness in A Prairie Home Companion is likely to be the last GK will ever host. Yet he is not one for eulogizing. GK never mentions the fact that this is the show's finale to his audience; his job, on this night, is the same as it has always been: juggle everything that needs to be juggled in order to pull the show off, entertain the audience that has decided to show up (in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Fitzgerald Theater, the home of the show in real life as well), and then go home.

The movie itself, directed by Robert Altman, reflects that same spirit in its regards to last things. It was Altman's final film, yet it is marked by neither heavy-handed gravitas nor easy sentimentality. Altman and Keillor's sensibilities are very close, and they are very similar auteurs in a sense: while unmistakably the center of attention, they exist in this film primarily to provide a launching pad for the talents of others. (It is somewhat surprising to read, in Mitchell Zuckoff's masterful oral biography of Altman, that the two did not get along). The film is about nothing more than the last performance of "Prairie," with fictionalized versions of the real show's gala of performers. Songs are sung by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin (as dueting Minnesota sisters), Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly (as a pair of ribald cowboys), and even an endearing Lindsay Lohan (as Streep's daughter; she was never endearing before or again). Altman also turns his camera to the backstage goings-on, and his trademark technique of constant camera movements, tracking shots, and overlapping dialogue creates a gentle palimpsest of celebration, remembrance, and melancholy.

This is not Altman's best film (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Short Cuts are all more expansive visions of American culture; by comparison, Prairie is hermetic). It may not even be his best film this decade - Gosford Park is the best case that Altman is something like an American Jean Renoir. But it is, along with the scruffy California Split, my favorite Robert Altman film. In the Zuckoff biography (the most masterful bio of a film director I've ever read, because its method and presentation - overlapping voices speaking on Altman's life, juxtaposed one after the other - perfectly captures the sensibility of its object), Paul Thomas Anderson, who was an assistant director on Prairie (Altman could not get the film insured without a director to take over in the event of his death), shares loving anecdotes about Altman, with whom he became friends toward the end of Altman's life. Late in the book, he reveals that the final shot filmed in Prairie - the final shot filmed by Altman - was of Kevin Kline (who plays the Fitzgerald Theater "house detective" in the film) sitting at a piano while the set of the radio show (and the film itself) is taken apart and thrown away. Anderson says: "He was staring at the monitor and he just looked really sad that it was ending. I think we only did the shot twice ... I wanted to do more - not 'cause it wasn't good, but I wanted to keep shooting." Prairie contains a very intelligent depiction of grief and loss which accepts the end of things with the same tough attitude as GK himself. But it is also a film very much alive; the film doesn't end with that shot of Kline, but instead gives us one final glimpse of the "Prairie" troupe as it sings its final song. The film lets the show go on, exuding an open-ended generosity familiar in Altman.

Francois Truffaut once wrote that The Rules of the Game was one of those films you could watch once a year for the rest of your life. I feel that way about A Prairie Home Companion.

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