Altman finale: A Prairie Home Companion

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I have always considered Garrison Keillor to be a thug and a bully who camouflages his aggressive-homicidal nature with a studied, almost convincing façade of folksiness, so it should come as no real surprise that the film version of his tasteless radio show amounts to little beyond a soul-poisoning nightmare.

I saw the movie back in mid-April, and here it is the first of June; I haven’t been in a hurry to sort out why the film inspired such a sense of disgust and outrage, suffice to say that the more I mulled over A Prairie Home Companion, the more I hated the picture. In fact, I wouldn’t have written about the movie at all, but I began to suspect it would either receive unanimous good notices or else reviewers would soft-pedal the all too apparent complicity of the film’s 81-year-old director, Robert Altman, who here renders his most sickeningly dehumanized work since Prêt-à-Porter.

Long before the movie evaporates in a rumbling, rifting avalanche of flatulence jokes, and listening to sound effects of John C. Reilly breaking wind must rank as the nadir of recent cinema, we are broadsided by Keillor’s puerile attitudes toward death, a sin that Altman does nothing to redeem. Virginia Madsen, clad in a stiff as starch white trenchcoat, parades in zombie-like fashion through the balconies and backstairs of the Fitzgerald Theatre, where Keillor and company stage their radio series for a live audience. She’s meant to be an Angel of Death, and her measured vamping turns stale and repetitive soon enough, though the straitjacketed particulars of the role do what they are supposed to do: conceal that the talentless Madsen cannot act. At some point, Keillor and the un-named woman get around to having a conversation, and he wants to know how she died. She tells him. She died while listening to A Prairie Home Companion on her car radio, laughing so hard at one of Garrison’s jokes that she plunged off a cliff, or something to that effect. What other writer – and Keillor did pen the screenplay for this malicious crap – would have the arrogance and the hubris to construct a scene like this?

I used to work at public radio stations, from the late 80s to the mid 90s, that carried Keillor’s obnoxious show, and if I were babysitting the board on a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon, try as I may to turn the monitor volume as low as possible without actually missing my cues, I would catch snippets of the violent stories that Keillor dolled up in folksy drag, his velvety voice and narcissistic delivery distancing his carefully crafted persona, that of an implacable, avuncular fellow, from the sleazy content of his monologues. Not having been forced to hear the show for several years now, I’d forgotten how sneeringly hateful and vulgar it was, with its unending obsessions over strangulations and bodily functions. Altman’s film, despite or because of a few finely realized moments in the first half-hour or so, leaves a lasting imprimatur of the Keillor vanity.

In truth, I’m not alone in loathing this Prairie Home Companion. I’m joined by “Franz Bieberkopf,” the pseudonym for a Seattle film critic who has of late been slumming at the wretched and ridiculous “Siffblog,” sprucing the place up with his adroit wit (and no, “Franz” is not me). His capsule denunciation is worth quoting in full, though I have copyedited just a touch:

Next to Spielberg, Robert Altman is America’s most incompetent director. When his movies are watchable, it is by accident. When they are good, it is a miracle. This one is bad, very bad. The scenes of torture in Hostel were less grating than the good-natured egomania of these third-rate actors as they traipse about backstage during the final performance of a ghastly radio program that, for some inconceivable reason, held this country in its sway for over 20 years. The cast is as boringly eclectic as that of a Woody Allen picture. While Allen’s movies come across as staged readings of hastily written first drafts, Altman’s play like wire-tapped wrap parties. Lording over this mess is the amateurish presence of Garrison Keillor, whose hangdog face and monotonous voice would, in a sane world, clear the drunks out of an American Legion hall. By the end of this tiresomely tortuous thing, an off-color song on the order of a South Park Hee-Haw parody had the intellectually numbed audience in hysterics.

And there you have it. Well, almost. At the end of the opening credits sequence, the camera remains static across an expanse of sky, then lifts heavenward to alight in a puddle on the street, the pocket of water reflecting the neon glare of an Art Deco-ish old diner. It’s a virtuosic visual effect, but also emblematic of how Altman/Keillor trick and betray us. They’ve cast Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as the sisters Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson, a country music duo that, in its more populous days, was a quartet. Tomlin and Streep have an authentically lived-in quality, and the warmth, the generosity, with which these actresses imbue these characters lends a deceptively humanist veneer to the movie when they are on-screen.

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Backstage, seated before their dressing room mirror, the sisters reminisce about their missing siblings and late parents. “I should’ve gone to Chicago when Mamma died,” Rhonda laments; Tomlin’s reading speaks volumes of regret over paths not taken. From there, she segues into a tragic, yet uproariously funny account of the sister who, intentionally or not, walked out of a greasy spoon without paying for a glazed donut, thereby ending her musical career: “If she were a rock star, she could have tossed a sofa out a hotel window, but when you’re playing for Christian family audiences like we were, you forget to pay for one glazed donut, and they’re gonna throw you out like garbage.” It’s a great statement on the schizoid concept of forgiveness in our culture, one that hardly applies to evangelicals alone. Yolanda and Rhonda continue to relive these memories of an era gone by; when finally they embrace, still sitting down in front of the mirror, they are singing a hymn. Devoid of sentiment, the image is a cinematic visualization of hope. Well past the age of fifty, these women still conjure the strength, physical and otherwise, to keep touring the less-traveled circuit, to keep singing. I was as moved by the inner beauty of Tomlin and Streep as I was by the contours that Altman brings to the shots of them and their reflected doubles. If the man cannot discern tripe from treasure in his choice of material, then at least he glides the camera gracefully, some of the time.

And Altman does know how to stage vocal performance compellingly. When Streep and Keillor warble a ditty about rhubarb pie, with a jaunty, jitterbug band behind them, the director’s deep focus shortchanges neither the intimacy nor the larger-than-life serendipities of making music – Altman’s inventiveness with the frame here seems a rebuke to Jonathan Demme’s one-dimensional dullness in Neil Young: Heart of Gold. During this or another song, there are quick cuts of Streep’s daughter, reasonably well acted by Lindsay Lohan, getting lost in folds of curtain at the rim of the stage, a nice visual echo of James Franco fluttering in the wings for Neve Campbell at the end of The Company. – NPT

June 1, 2006

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