Last week a friend took me to see Prairie Home Companion on a free pass. I went somewhat against my better judgment. Like anyone, I’m a fan of Robert Altman at his best. And like many, I’m a Garrison Keillor detractor. At the time we made the plan, I knew Keillor had written the script but wasn’t clear about whether I’d actually have to look at him. My friend, who as far as I can tell is neutral on the subject of Keillor but does hail from Lake Wobegon country, confirmed that Mr. Lawsuit would appear onscreen. “Oh well,” I wrote back, “we can bring tomatoes.” In the blink of an eye he responded: “I don’t throw tomatoes at Minnesotans.” A principled position that I had to respect, though I’m not at all sure there aren’t several Michiganders I would gladly pelt, given the opportunity, with whatever happened to be handy.
At the outset, I disliked the movie. Michael Blowhard has written with infectious enthusiasm about its meandering charm:
Weak on storyline and action, it’s nonetheless focused and controlled — more a “Tempest”-like poetic picture of life than a narrative: We live among spirits and archetypes; death and beauty are never more than a few steps away; gallantry, generosity, humor, and belief carry us through … It’s a jewelbox and a metaphysical romance, yet it’s fully inhabited and embodied, and it never stops rolling along.
This gets at the trademark naturalism of many Altman films, but in the early going of Prairie Home Companion that signal quality struck me as terribly staged. The scene backstage at the radio show (a fictional, small-time version of “Prairie Home Companion”) as on-air time approaches is barely controlled chaos, a classic Altman occasion. As in more persuasive such scenes in Altman’s oeuvre, we get overlapping conversations, a dozen subplots unfolding at once, and lots and lots to look at. In the midst of this cheerful frenzy, both the cheer and disorder seem centered on the singing sisters played by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, who clatter in like a squall at the last minute. Sweet and tart, blithe and barely holding things together, they more than any other characters encapsulate the reigning mood and aesthetic of the radio show and of the movie itself. What a drag, then, when they start uttering gobs of exposition while doing their makeup. The genius of Altman’s naturalism, when it’s on, is that it doesn’t press explanations on you but lets you put things together gradually: who people are, what their relationships are to one another, what stories they trail behind him. When Tomlin and Streep launched on this character-establishing and backstory-telling torrent almost as soon as we’d met them, my heart sank. I thought the movie was going to be really bad–and guessed the culprit would be the script. I reached for my tomato. But I hadn’t brought one.
Good thing too, because the film eventually won me over–for the most part. The on-stage musical performances loosened things up considerably: they themselves are pure pleasure, and by virtue of the balance they provide, they make the more contrived backstage action more interesting. But even as the film grew lovelier and more absorbing, the mote that I kept wanting to flick away was the weirdly flat performance by Virginia Madsen as an angel of death or something. I shouldn’t blame Madsen; it was probably an unsalvageable role, though it is true that Kevin Kline spun another undercooked part into a little bit of incidental charm, at least, as Guy Noir.
Now to help me understand why Madsen’s angel was so objectionable, along comes Odienator at the group film and television blog The House Next Door with a great essay on angels of death in Prairie Home Companion and Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz. To his mind, Altman is soft-pedaling death, he’s not buying it, and it makes him miss the Altman of years past:
Later in the film, Dangerous Ginny comments that “the death of an old man is not a tragedy,” which led me to holler out, “Bullshit, Mr. Altman.” When Lola asks if he is concerned that this is the last show, G.K. says “every show is your last show. That’s my philosophy.” “Thank you, Plato,” Lola’s sister Yolanda (Lily Tomlin) sarcastically replies, saving grumps like me the trouble of talking back to the screen again.
…I am closer to 52 than 80, and more attuned to Broadway than Lake Woebegone; I know more about sex and self-destruction than the wisdom of age and the sense of entitlement one feels for living a long life. Most importantly, though, I also know something about being a grouch, and from that vantage point, Prairie‘s subtle exhortations to go gentle into that good night seem a false comfort from Altman to his fans–a reassurance that displaces his usual blunt honesty. For a movie whose cast includes a sexy reaper, Prairie is too smug and passive about dying. The mortal coil is unraveling from the show and its participants, yet Altman chooses to deflect a universal fear by pretending that death is a mere nuisance.
This is why Madsen is so terrible; her air-headed angel’s platitudes ring hollow in the Altman universe we’ve come to know. Would the younger Altman have let a character get away with such bullshit? This artist has never felt the need to embrace and console his audiences in the past, so why start now? Nashville‘s final number, “It Don’t Worry Me,” was about willful denial; the whole of Prairie is about acceptance, yet it feels like a denial as well. The palpable fear that this is Altman’s last movie is never honestly dealt with by the director’s stand-in, Keillor, nor the film itself. It seems almost as if Prairie thinks it holds the monopoly on dying, and that the show-within-a-movie is noble–and its demise a tragedy–simply because it’s been around for so long. Altman’s onscreen representative G.K. keeps pooh-poohing the distress his colleagues feel throughout their last show, going so far as to state that he doesn’t want to tell people how to feel about his legacy; but his relaxed attitude never feels true. Altman throws out a hopeful, interesting curve when dealing with the fate of Tommy Lee Jones’ character (a fantasy of how to deal with one’s enemies). Here is the mean Altman we know and love, lashing out at his critics, informing you of his perceived greatness and how much it’ll be missed once he’s gone. But the film treats it as a throwaway; as quickly as it arrives, it defers back to that transparent, dishonest lulling. If Prairie weren’t so concerned with coddling us, we’d deduce that it’s OK to acknowledge Death–just don’t go looking for it; wait until it shows up to pull your number.
Yes. Read the whole thing, and bookmark that blog because they are always posting something good.
Incidentally, my first ten Altman films, in (rough) order of preference: The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, California Split, MASH, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, Cookie’s Fortune, The Player, Thieves Like Us, The Gingerbread Man. I’ve only seen half of Nashville, sad to say, and half a movie never sticks.