As American as Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie
I wanted to see Robert Altman’s Prairie Home Companion for a number of reasons.
It was Saturday night, and the next morning I was to begin shooting a short film I’d written. I knew I’d be forced to watch a script I’d spent months tuning and polishing undergo an inevitable transformation. The characters my actors would create would only remotely resemble those I had written. Lines would change; actions would be forced to alter. I’m a bit anal retentive when it comes to my work, so this set of creeping realizations was causing me a good deal of anxiety.
I needed someone like Altman to help me loosen my grip on my material, to show me that giving actors freedom was okay. Altman has always been a vocal proponent of treating scripts as mere “blueprints” for action. In a recent interview with the Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Star Tribune, the Hollywood renegade and recent Lifetime Achievement Oscar-winner confirmed that he still believes performers should be given the freedom to flesh out their roles. “I’m not up there telling them how to act,” Altman explained. “I’m just putting the pieces on the palette and they move them around…My biggest job is to accommodate them and make room for them and also to make room for their contributions and see that they get in.”
Then, there was the issue of the film’s subject. I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Long, hot and sticky drives to the family cottage would fly by as Keillor’s characteristic lapping baritone told of the Lutheran inhabitants of his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon (where “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”). To watch a film in which Keillor starred and where, I hoped and hoped, the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon might make an appearance promised to be the cinematic equivalent of a glass of warm milk and a plate of Oreos.
While the film was nothing like I imagined it would be, and while close examination proves it to be a bit of a mess, I can’t deny that Prairie Home Companion calmed my fears and left me smiling. Despite what any critics may say about it—and they always have something to say about Altman’s work—the film overcame all momentary confusion by being, at the base of it all, profoundly and beautifully human.
Altman’s film is not really about Keillor’s radio show at all. Well, it is and it isn’t. The radio personality and satirist originally approached Altman to make a film about his Lake Wobegon characters. It looks like that film will get made one day, but the movie that Altman ended up pushing Keillor to write was something different altogether.
Here, we have Keillor as the host of a long-running Minnesota radio prgram facing extinction. Rather than looking anything like the immensenly successful and gloriously self-aware program Keillor actually hosts, this Home Companion is a metaphor for the glorious anachronism that is the radio variety program—a midwestern Grand Old Opry if you will. The nods to fake sponsors like Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Store are there; the black humour too. Only now, fictional characters like Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), Keillor’s wandering cowboys, are real performers on his show. To make matters even more confusing, Guy Noir, the protagonist in Keillor’s famous Raymond Chandler spoof fiction, is Home Companion’s head of security (the gumshoe business being on the wane). Now that the show is about to be axed by a band of “saved” corporate Texas Christians, Noir must oversee the program’s final show and butter up the philistinic Axe Man in the corporate booth (Tommy Lee-Jones).
Noir (Kevin Kline doing Sam Spade meets Inspector Clouseau) is actually the film’s narrator, an odd frame for the magnificent musical and comedic performances that pepper Home Companion’s final show. This is a film about death—the end of an era and the passing on of Midwestern liberalism—but that doesn’t make the arrival of Virginia Madsen’s white trench-coated angel of death any less odd. She floats about the set, reduces Noir to melted butter and reminisces about losing her life while listening to Keillor tell a joke over the car radio (“One penguin turns to another penguin and says “You look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” The other says, “What makes you think I’m not”). Sometimes people see her and sometimes they don’t. When a life is finally taken mid-show, the film addresses how we treat death and learn to move on.
Yes, it’s a mess. But it’s a sublime mess. It’s vintage Altman. Like a typical Altman shot, an Altman movie has a logic and scattered attention all its own. It jumps around from character to character; it is never focussed or intrusive. Prairie Home Companion follows the same logic. It doggedly refuses to subscribe to the notion that art needs to be unified on any level but that of character.
And that’s where the film finds its vindication. If you are confused by what the movie is trying to say and find the amalgam of genre elements strange, you still can’t deny how moving it is to see these characters face the show’s end. How can you help but smile as the Johnson Sisters (Lily Tomlin and a staggeringly brilliant Meryl Streep) banter back and forth with Keillor at the microphone, desperately trying to wrest control of the show from his strict, Lutheran hand? These characters have all sung and performed together for so long, that the show’s demise no doubt brings reality into stark existential focus. In any other hands, it might not have worked. But Altman trusts his actors and allows them to do whatever they can to give the script a pulse.
The best of these performances, at the end of the day, is Keillor’s. Altman allows the acting novice to bring his on-radio personality effortlessly to the screen. The Hollywood firepower surrounding him actually makes the humourist rise to the occasion. Those who adore Keillor’s radio program will no doubt adore the film. Those who are only filing into the cinema to see Lindsay Lohan (who, incidentally, is very passably decent), will hopefully download a show or two.
Robert Altman’s Prairie Home Companion is a testament to what kind of magic can be created when you trust your actors. It’s no wonder they line up down the block to work with him.