Sunday, January 14, 2007

Review - A Prairie Home Companion

At one point in A Prairie Home Companion, the mysterious character played by Virginia Madsen says “there is no tragedy in the death of an old man”, and under the circumstances her words have a bitter irony. This is the last film directed by the mercurial Robert Altman, and his death last November did feel like something of a tragedy for cinema. We lost a daring, innovative, imaginative filmmaker; an utterly singular artist who never compromised his reckless style to gain favour with the establishment, and even at the age of 81 he was still one of the most consistently interesting figures working in American cinema. How can the passing of such a man be considered as anything other than a tragedy?

So, one approaches
A Prairie Home Companion with mixed feelings. This will be the last Robert Altman film we have the pleasure of viewing, but it’s a relief to report that the director went out on a high note. His cinematic take on Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show is full of traditional Altman tropes - an eclectic ensemble, overlapping dialogue, an endlessly roaming camera - and it’s also full of laughs; but this light and breezy film has a surprisingly dark underbelly, and it seems eerily prophetic that this particular picture is so often preoccupied with death. Despite that shadow of death, however, A Prairie Home Companion is a wonderfully alive piece of filmmaking.

I had never heard of Garrison Keillor’s radio show before the release of this film, but apparently it has attained cult status in the US with its mix of country music, stories, jokes and spoof advertisements. It is presented by Keillor in front of a live studio audience, and it has been running for some three decades now with very little change in the formula - I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - but this strange little production still seems to be a particularly unlikely basis for a feature film.

But it works beautifully, and much of the credit for the film’s success must go to Keillor, whose screenplay seems perfectly attuned to Altman’s direction. In dividing its attention between events both onstage and off, the film allows a wonderful mix of characters to cross paths, with Altman cherry-picking the choicest moments for inclusion in the ramshackle narrative. Keillor also appears in the film as a version of himself, and he does a very good job, particularly when the cast alongside him is such an embarrassment of acting riches. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are a pair of singing sisters, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are a hilarious double-act as singing cowboys, and Kevin Kline is on fine comic form as a barely-competent private eye. The ensemble is rounded out by Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Marylouise Burke and LQ Jones; and the actors all appear to be perfect fit for their various roles.

There’s not a lot in the way of plot here, but Keillor’s screenplay does inject proceedings with a small dose of tension by making this the last broadcast of his show. WLT, the radio station behind the programme, has been sold to a Texan conglomerate and there are rumours flying around the Fitzgerald theatre that
A Prairie Home Companion is about to be dropped from the schedules. But the show must go on, and the performers and crew continue to go about their business while they wait for the dreaded axe to fall.

To be honest the central plot hook is - as in so many of Altman’s films - pretty much irrelevant, and what counts here is character and atmosphere.
A Prairie Home Companion is a collection of lovely moments, small touches and deft strokes, which gradually builds into a warmly satisfying picture. Altman’s pacing is leisurely; he allows scenes to play out in their own time, with his camera slowly picking up on minor details, and this relaxed approach sees the film settle into a comfortable rhythm which is typically Altman. Scenes which may seem inconsequential are incorporated into the overall piece, contributing to the sense of detail and texture which the film possesses.

Altman always loved actors, and cast on display here spark off each other like they’ve been doing it for years. Streep and Tomlin share an infectious sense of fun in their scenes together, finishing each other’s sentences and giggling as they tell stories from the family’s past to Lohan’s Lola - it’s a perfect example of how Altman’s overlapping dialogue gives a naturalistic air to the way his characters interact. Harrelson and Reilly’s brilliant performances make one wish for a Dusty and Lefty spin-off movie, and their dirty joke medley towards the end of the film is a side-splitting highlight; and even if Kevin Kline’s Guy Noir often seems like a resurrection of
A Fish Called Wanda’s Otto, who would complain when he can produce as many laughs as he does here?

But it’s the character played by Virginia Madsen who is the most interesting of all. Looking beautiful in a white coat and bathed in light, she’s an angel who has come to the theatre to claim some lives on the night the show dies. It’s a risky move by Altman and Keillor, to bring this fantastical element into the film, but they just about manage to swing it, and the director’s death gives this particular aspect of the picture a whole new relevance. It’s always strange when a director’s last film seems to somehow predict their imminent passing by focusing on themes of mortality, fate or regret, and it has happened a number of times in the past - think of Tarkovsky’s
The Sacrifice, Kieslowski’s Red or pretty much any of Kurosawa’s final pictures. A Prairie Home Companion is given a resonance through the passing of its director which is strange to experience, and it lends the enigmatic final scene a powerful edge. As the angel of death walks directly towards the camera, one can’t help wondering if it’s the man behind the camera she is coming to claim.

A Prairie Home Companion isn’t an Altman masterpiece, and there are a few niggling little flaws which must be taken into consideration. The character played by Tommy Lee Jones is a rather shapeless one, and it would have been nice to see the actor getting more of a chance to make an impact on the proceedings before finally being dealt with in such an arbitrary manner. The shaggy nature of the film’s structure also, inevitably, means that some scenes hit the mark while others don’t - in particular, I wasn’t particularly taken by the revelations about the prior relationship between Streep and Keillor’s characters - but these minor flaws thankfully don’t leave much of an impression.

This is a fine way for Robert Altman to bow out; a hugely enjoyable picture which is every bit as meandering and idiosyncratic as you’d expect it to be.
A Prairie Home Companion climaxes with the all of the major characters singing and dancing on the stage, and it’s a hugely uplifting finale, but there’s a lingering sense of sadness here as well. As the credits roll they’re not just announcing the end of the movie, but the end of the line for Altman too - and as the picture comes to a close, we realise the lights have finally gone out on an extraordinary life.