Sunday, June 18, 2006


Written by Garrison Keillor
Directed by Robert Altman

Real life American radio show, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, becomes fictional fodder in director, Robert Altman’s film of the same name. After 32 years on the air, the show has not changed a bit. Host, Garrison Keillor (played by Keillor himself) broadcasts live from a Minnesota theatre in front of a loyal audience. Various acts perform songs, ranging in message from spiritual to romantic to borderline naughty while messages from sponsors are interspersed throughout. Gracing the stage in song are colorful, quirky (read Altman-esque) characters played by a gamut of folk from Meryl Streep to Lily Tomlin to Woody Harrelson to John C. Reilly. It doesn’t stop there either. The cast continues to round out with the likes of Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones and little Lindsay Lohan. And those are just the A-listers. Nearly the entire story takes place over the course of the show’s final broadcast, practically shutting out any possibility for conventional structure and allowing for character work and integrated back story. Altman has given us a backstage pass to A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION’s swan song, what ultimately becomes a contemplation on death that is served with soothing melodies that soften the looming sadness and grief.

At 81 years old, director, Robert Altman, admits that mortality is in his thoughts and it is certainly running rampant through the wings and dressing rooms of this homely theatre. The death of the comforting show opens the door to conversations about corporations crushing simple people and sensitive souls as well as the neighborly values sung about in the songs. An aging character dies on this fateful night allowing cast and crew’s reactions to permeate to the surfaces of their faces. Should something be said in his honour? Should words be said about the demise of the show in its honour? Is death a reason to honour life or is life reason enough? As both host and screenwriter, Keillor seems more in favor of honouring life while it is still with us, choosing to perform each show like it were his last. This makes the last show no more significant than any of the others, at least not just because it is the last one. Death is so acutely prominent on this night that it even takes the form of an angel of death, dressed in a glowing white trench coat. She presides over the duration of the show, visible only intermittently to those around her and not even all of them at that. Her function, as an angel of death, is to take souls to whatever comes next when their time has come. Though her duties for the evening had already been fulfilled, she cannot leave as she is haunted by her own death, which came while listening to A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. Even angels cannot fully piece together the puzzle that is the transition from life to death.

As the angel of death, a character billed as Dangerous Woman, Madsen sadly gives one of the film’s weaker performances. Though not entirely her fault as her white over coat is a little too white, too perfect, her stride is more of a glide and her speech is always calm, docile. Together, these approaches come off as more farcical than supernatural. Equally clichéd is Guy Noir, an over glorified security guard played by Kline. His private eye speak seems out of place amidst the rest of the realistically based characters. Luckily, Altman’s strange decisions to have these characters play to such stereotypes did not detract from all the rest. Individually, the rest of the major players are strong but they are stronger still as part of the miniature groupings they belong to. As duo Dusty & Lefty, Harrelson and Reilly play off each other like they’ve been doing it for years. Not surprisingly but still seriously appreciated are Streep and Tomlin as the Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda. They round out each other’s stories and harmonize like only sisters would. Tomlin even has a hint or irritation in her eyes whenever Streep drifts towards a more whimsical train of thinking. Of course, many an eye is on Lohan to see how she holds up as the third wheel to these two unquestionable talents. And hold up she does as the next generation representer of the Johnson family,
A daughter who sings of death but at least she sings. Some things don’t die; they just evolve.

In true Altman style, all of these different lives converge to create a world unto itself. This world is reinforced by Altman standard elements like lengthy credit sequences, conversations running over others and fluid camera movement crossing from the back stage to the actual stage and from floor to floor. The result is a multi-leveled maze that Altman somehow manages to make sense. Whilst doing so, Altman also sneaks in the film’s greatest irony, that some traditions don’t die but continue to thrive after four decades of filmmaking.

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