Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Robert Altman | A Prairie Home Companion

by Douglas Messerli

Garrison Keillor (writer), Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZenik (story), Robert Altman (director) A
Prairie Home Companion
/ 2006

Directed by one of America’s most noted filmmakers, Robert Altman, and with a screenplay by the beloved humorist and radio-host Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion was perhaps one of the most anticipated films of the lackluster 2006 film season. Despite some critical appreciation, however, the film mostly garnered mediocre reviews, in particular in the widely-read New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. A. O. Scott of the latter paper perhaps summarized the comments best in his characterization of Keillor and Altman’s collaboration: “Together they have confected a breezy backstage comedy that is also a sly elegy: a poignant contemplation of last things that goes down as smoothing and sweetly as a lemon drop.” In summary, the New York paper noted that Keillor’s “weekly cavalcade of wry Midwestern humor and musical Americana has never set out to make anyone’s hair stand on end. Notwithstanding the occasional crackle of satire or sparkle of instrumental virtuosity, it mostly offers reliable doses of amusement embedded in easygoing nostalgia. It looks back on—or, rather, reinvents—a time when popular culture was spooned out in grange halls and Main street movie palaces….” The movie, Scott concluded, was “more likely to inspire fondness than awe.”

Similarly, David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, noted that Altman and Keillor are very similar in the smooth flow of their work—Altman in the movement of his camera and Keillor through the tales of his tongue. “…A bit of tension might have helped the movie. A Prairie Home Companion has many lovely and funny moments, but there’s not a lot going on. Dramatically, it’s mellow to the point of inertia.” Evidently preferring the radio show to the movie, critic Carina Chocano observed, “The Prairie Home Campanion of the movie is hardly the middlebrow juggernaut known to listeners. Instead it’s been converted to kitsch museum, which might as well house a giant ball of string. The improvised patter is funny and sharp, the music kicky and the nods to fake sponsors familiar, but without Keillor’s monologue and the show’s collective inclusion on the joke, the movie falls into a strange nostalgia for something that hardly anyone remembers.”

The Los Angeles Times' evaluation is particularly interesting given the fact that I saw this film as an apologia of sorts for just the “strange nostalgia” so apparent in Keillor’s radio show. In this sense, the movie I witnessed—which clearly is not the same movie seen by these critics—is a requiem of sorts, a musical celebration for the dead, a kind of secular mass in celebration and confession of the tongue-and-cheek, slyly winking art that Keillor has brilliantly performed over these many years. It is almost as if Keillor were telling his American audiences—as Star Trek star William Shatner once told an avid fan—“Get a life!” Keillor and Altman do work brilliantly together, but their artifact, far from being a smooth-running linguistic machine, is actually a gathering of disparate and dissociative individuals and events that merely pretends to represent a larger whole. As Chicago Tribune reviewer Michael Phillips perceptively commented, Altman “captures a sense of ensemble and, at the same time, an ensemble dissolving into individual puzzle pieces—outsiders all, everybody doing their own thing.”

Pretense, indeed, is the major subject of this film. The performers crowding St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater stage are as romantic as F. Scott’s Daisy and Gatsby, larger than life figures creating their own realities as they go along. The hilarious cowboys, Dusty and Lefty (typological names for American cowpokes) may harmoniously sing and joke their way through their performances, but offstage they bicker perpetually over each other’s behavior, weight, and physique, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) being particularly concerned by the obvious outline of Lefty’s (John C. Reilly) butt crack—hardly the usual subjects of discussion by such archetypes of American mythology. If the two might imagine themselves onstage as joke-spinning Lotharios, their offstage relationships with women consist of child-like humor such as pretending ignorance of the assistant director’s pregnancy, which former detective Guy Noir jokingly reveals by lifting up her blouse.

The two remaining sisters of the former Johnson family act (“The Carter family. Like us only famous”), Yolanda and Rhonda (brilliantly performed by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) recount in offstage conversations an absurd series of events centered on their hard-working mother’s attempts to keep the financially strapped family together. Their sister, suffering a hypoglycemic attack, is arrested and jailed for eating a doughnut without paying; upon hearing of her arrest, their shamed father suffers a stroke and dies.

Their lives, we discover, are also intertwined with Keillor’s: he later recounts how he saved a naked man attached to a runaway kite. In search of employment he and his new-found “friend” head to Chicago, but, tiring of his company, Keillor purposely leaves him behind in Oshkosh, where his former companion meets Yolanda and marries her. Years later, Yolanda and Keillor also have an affair. In short, these sisters represent their whole world as a kind of extended dysfunctional family. In response to these and other changes in her fate—including the final performance of the ongoing show the night of the film’s action—Yolanda speciously argues that when-ever one door closes, another opens up. No matter that behind the new door there might be even more disasters in store, in her cul-de-sac of logic, she floats through a life—with her more cynical and savvy sister beside her—that is no more believable than the stories she relates. When in the final scenes of the movie her daughter Lola gets her “big break”—performing a disastrously improvised rendition of “Frankie and Johnnie”—Yolanda perceives it as the new opportunity she has been seeking; never mind that the young, suicidally inclined girl has little stage talent. The film later reveals she has a head for business.

Keillor does not spare himself in his revelation of individual pretense. On stage the brilliantly glib commentator comes alive, but offstage he is presented as an unemotional and seemingly unfeeling human who refuses even to announce the death during the show of fellow singer L. Q. Jones, who has died while waiting in his dressing room to consummate his love with the set’s “lunch lady.” When asked, “What if you die some day?” he coolly responds, “I will die.” “Don’t you want people to remember you?” “I don’t want them to be told to remember me.” Unable to accept the fact that Keillor has obviously “closed the door” on their relationship, Yolanda continues to chastise him even during a moment of onstage improvisation.

Hovering over these self-pretending beings is “the dangerous woman,” seen by some but not by all. To Keillor she recounts her own death which occurred when she lost control of her car while laughing at his “A Prairie Home Companion” penguin joke (a joke—featured on the actual radio show—that Keillor delivered in such a badly mangled way that it became a recurring skit):

Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin
says, “you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo. “The second
penguin says, “what makes you think I’m not?”

She asks Keillor, “Why is that funny?” “I guess because people laugh at it.” “I’m not laughing,” she replies.

Indeed, it is not “funny” in a standard sense. As Henri Bergson tells us, most humor is based upon incongruity, upon something that would not be normally funny if it actually happened to us. The penguin joke—a perfect example of what Bergson describes as “inversion”—works because it so openly reveals our desire to accept the simulacrum instead the real. Since the penguin vaguely looks like he’s dressed in a tuxedo he may be actually dressed in a tuxedo. The joke points to our desires to believe in a reality that we know is untrue, our willingness to be gullibly deceived.

This joke, in fact, is at the heart of Altman and Keillor’s film. For the “strange nostalgia” that A Prairie Home Companion evokes is, like the penguin, a simulacrum of the American past, a past so wittily and craftily presented that Americans want to believe it even while recognizing its falsity. So too does this film present onstage a musical world so engaging—the songs, whose lyrics mostly were created by Keillor himself, seem close enough to the real thing that we enjoy them as if they were classics—that despite what the film has revealed about the offstage lives of these figures, audiences (the false audience of the film, the “real” film-going audience, and, evidently, most critics) cannot help but feel the immense pleasure of swallowing the sweet lemon drop.

The “dangerous lady,” however, is more than dangerous and more than a lady, for she is the angel of death, Asphodel. In nature, the asphodel is a narcissus-like flower. Accordingly, this “angel” suggests that we often love ourselves and our past, perhaps, more than a present filled with other living beings. Death is, so to speak, “in the house,” and she mercilessly slays not only a singer and the visiting Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) out to destroy this artifice of nostalgia, but ultimately everything and everyone upon who she casts her cold eyes. As Keillor has warned us, he too will die—and so too will we. But the question remains, will we live our lives in acceptance of the truth of being or will we remain, like Yolanda and the other performers of homespun travesty, trapped in a mythologized invention of our experiences.

Keillor and Altman reveal that such a view of reality can only end up with Americans facing the same philosophical endgame that Yolanda claims to joyfully embrace. Americans, Keillor and Altman suggest, are so desperate for the simulacrum, so much in love with the sentimentalized past epitomized in dramas such as Our Town—a scene from which Yolanda quotes early in this film—that we are readily willing to abandon the truth of our daily lives. What will it take to awaken us? Keillor warns, “We are not a beach people. We are a dark people who believe it could be worse, and are waiting for it,” a people afraid of the light.

Within the movie, the characters do not awaken but, while dreaming of reviving their show, die, playing out their imaginary lives even in the sweet bye and bye:

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell us what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked about something to eat,
They just answer in accents so sweet:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land in the sky!
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good,
There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 5 (November 2006).
Copyright (c) 2006 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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