Good night … and good luck
PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, USA, 2006) — 6
Ten minutes into the movie, I was mentally climbing up the wall, convinced I was watching another Altman snark-fest turkey. Kevin Kline is playing the clueless investigator who isn’t quite there — like Geraldine Chaplin in NASHVILLE and Stephen Fry in GOSFORD PARK. He is named Guy Noir, in case the voiceover of “hard-bitten dialog” like “the show had been running since Jesus was in the third grade,” the Edward Hopper diner and the rainswept night streets weren’t enough to clue you in. You also get the line “Midwesterners think if you ignore bad news, it’ll go away.” (Ick.) And jokes about the call letters WLT. (Groan.) Given my known dislike for Garrison Keillor and “Prairie Home Companion,” I was ready for a miserable experience.
But I began to turn around at a precise moment … when Virginia Madsen entered the screen, very quickly obvious as an angel of death (I was actually kind of annoyed when PRAIRIE made that explicit). As a curvaceous woman clad in a long white coat, Madsen’s iconography was so precisely the opposite of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL that it could not be coincidental. And, like Bengt Ekerot’s famous icon (or even Satan in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), she mostly (and for a while “only”) interacts with Kline, leaving the players to run through their performance, oblivious to her shadow hanging over everything. In other words, she’s an observer. And even though THE SEVENTH SEAL (which also was about performers) was my entree into PRAIRIE being about something other than sniggering at the rubes, the pretentious European art film I wound up thinking most about was Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE, which is about angels who can’t interact with the world and long to join it (WINGS also has a movie-star presence who can interact with the angels). Only here, the world (i.e., the show) is ending, so the question of the angels becoming men never comes up.
But then there’s the performers within the show. Lindsay Lohan is too pouty-little-emo-girl for my tastes, and Tommy Lee Jones is just playing a caricature of Brutal Texas Billionaire. But Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin proved that their mastery of Altman’s overlapping dialog style went beyond being the highlight of the Oscar night. They play two singing sisters, Ronda and Yolanda, with an ease and familiarity with each other, and their songs, and the stories that they know how to finish for each other. John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson play a couple of crusty cowboys with a flair for bad dirty jokes (if you can’t laugh at “Why do they call it PMS? Because ‘mad cow disease’ was already taken,” you’re a hopeless fuddy-duddy). The coda gets spine-tingling when Madsen returns to the diner and sees Keillor, Streep, Klein, Tomlin in a booth — and the drama ends with them looking into the camera, as if wondering which one the Angel of Death will take next.
So Altman’s PRAIRIE is obviously about death (what was so hard for Stanley Kauffmann to see about that?), but more than that, it’s about seeing God as one is on the brink. Madsen assures us that “every sparrow is remembered”: a very specific allusion to perhaps the most famous Gospel verse on the breadth of God’s Providence, Matthew 10:29. Several of the songs are overtly religious meditations on death –the invocation in “Goodbye to My Mama” of the new Jerusalem and being in Jesus’ arms; “In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye” and “Let Your Light Shine on Me” get sung (and Altman swells the latter up on the soundtrack at one particularly delicate moment). Even the film’s imperfections give it a kind of enfeebled dignity — think of the performance of “Arrayed for the Bridal” of John Huston’s THE DEAD; the whole film of PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is like that. It’s a postmodern version of that ol’-time religion, as if Altman is seeing the other side of the Jordan and accommodating himself to the Almighty in the only way he (tho’ not He) knows how.
Not that Altman sustains this mood; he’s too crass for that. There is a death scene that could only have been made more tasteless by being “in flagrante”; Altman insists on showing a pregnant woman’s belly, just to show how fearless he is; Reilly cries in a way so fake it would disgrace pro wrestling; and don’t think Altman doesn’t give us jokes about bodily functions. It’s Beavis & Butt-head without the ironic distance, i.e., from the boys’ own POV. So I don’t think the film is an unqualified success — Klein, the fart jokes, the inherent unfunniness (to me) of “Prairie Home Companion.” But since I’m generally not the biggest Altman groupie in the world, I liked this film a lot more than I had a right to. In other words, everything that was Keillor, that was “text,” I didn’t like. But everything that was Altman, that was “subtext” (plus the named performers) was fun or interesting or kinda moving in places.
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