Sing Your Life
By Michael Koresky
A Prairie Home Companion
Dir. Robert Altman, U.S., Focus Features
Robert Altman never makes claims for greatness; each new release portends nothing more than another 100-something minutes of Altman, no larger, no smaller. Some are whispers; some are wails. Some gambits will float off with delight, others will land with a crashing thud. Many think of Altman in terms of size, as if the width of his canvases were more important than what’s painted into the corners with unfussy detail. Even when he goes “small,” as in 3 Women or Images or Cookie’s Fortune, his films seem to be about twenty things at once. Even Popeye isn’t content to simply be a cartoon or homage; instead it opened up into a Mad fold-in, an escalating series of impersonations jostling for space.
It’s this creepily ambiguous side of Altman that, even more so than his multitudinous character studies, most lingers in the mind. Cookie’s Fortune coasted on a moony-eyed, feet-wading-in-a-stream charm, until it ended on an utterly otherworldly bit of psychosis by way of Glenn Close; A Wedding’s devil-may-care forward thrust is seemingly cut short by a death that may or may not have even taken place; Gosford Park’s sprawling shooting gallery of suspects soon dwindles, in a very Dickensian fashion, to one sad domestic drama. Time and again, Altman’s large panoramas end up terrifyingly small, even if we don’t notice it due to his sublime tonal balance. For instance, in his new film, A Prairie Home Companion, Altman performs a master illusionist’s trick, gussying up a tale of death in frolics and furs and sending it out to strut in the Easter parade. Here, he turns to another multi-character canvas, letting his roving camera prowl around on the stage and behind the scenes of the fictional final broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s famed radio program. Freewheeling and bighearted, Prairie Home is nevertheless more than anything a portrait of loss: of family, friends, art forms, modes of address. The final radio show of “A Prairie Home Companion” is meant to encompass all forms of dying American mythologies, and by extension, memories of generations that grow more dog-eared with each passing year.
The lingering sense that remains long after the credits roll is of the past as a poignant missing object; in Altman’s brilliant palimpsest of a narrative, reality is simply a layering of times and eras, all gunked up in one allegedly contemporary mindset. Hence, Altman purposefully confuses the timeframe, beginning with a gorgeous Edward Hopper–inspired tableau of what looks like a depression-era diner. The film’s beautifully incongruous voice over narration then begins, via Kevin Kline’s ridiculously, poetically named Guy Noir, dressed in fedora and sporting that hard-boiled pomposity that’s become stock-in-trade Kline. Though he works as the theater’s security guard, the bumbling Guy Noir is trapped in a detective genre all his own; his period garb and outmoded movie-gleaned attitude stand at odds with the folk singers and country crooners we meet backstage, yet everyone remains dated, hailing from an earlier time, unwilling, or at least, not wanting, to give up their personae. Yet on this one night, time inexorably moves forward outside, even as inside it seems to stand still.
Something like a creased and crumpled counterpoint to Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s improbable sister act Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson exist outside of concrete time, although the presence of Yolanda’s goth-wannabe daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) consistently grounds her in the present. Indeed if not for Lohan’s Lola, we might not even recognize the Johnsons as recognizably living. Wafting in and out of superfluous conversations and nostalgic remembrances to which we are not privy as viewers, Yolanda, ethereal and more than a touch daffy, and Rhonda, cynical and pragmatic but maybe losing her grip on chronology, make for an enchantingly disconcerting pair. Only when they reach the stage do they fully come alive and seem present; Tomlin and, especially the marvelous Streep, of course, inject every moment with utter vivacity.
They’re having a ball floating through Altman’s tremulously mounted, glowing spaces, lensed with gorgeous candy-colored intimacy and startling technical dexterity by Far from Heaven’s great Ed Lachman. At times trying to play catch-up with Altman’s coterie of displaced soon-to-be has-beens and other times simply trailing off to survey the overall scene as if in an act of memorial, Lachman’s camerawork makes A Prairie Home Companion one of Altman’s most shimmeringly beautiful films—the glow of nostalgia tinged with dread. And here it is that Altman puts forth his most daring narrative ploy: Virginia Madsen, credited merely as the Dangerous Woman, arrives on the set as the final performance is in motion, moving stealthily through the changing rooms and stage backdrops. Attracting the attention of Guy Noir (Kline’s slapsticky Clouseau-esque mannerisms begin to grate here, but Madsen keeps things grounded), Madsen’s angelic lady in white, like Jessica Lange in All That Jazz, waits in the wings for the final curtain.
That Madsen’s ultra-schematic Dangerous Woman works so well is a testament both to Altman’s steadfast vision, balanced so finely on the line between pathos and cynicism, and Madsen’s beatific visage, used to perfection in Sideways’ overwritten yet lusciously performed “life is a pinot grape” monologue. She portends the death that the rest of the film dare not speak of. The radio station’s new owners, a large corporate conglomerate from Texas (represented by a late-film Tommy Lee Jones cameo), will be shutting everything down, and if Keillor’s “Prairie Home” is meant to represent the end of an era, then with Madsen’s angel of death comes not just demise but a reminder of bygone standards. It’s all very bittersweet, rather than vindictive, the acquiescence of an 80-year-old director who has come to terms with his own mortality, laughing it off with a wave of his hand. A Prairie Home Companion, quickly paced and eminently hummable, may seem small, but it’s a grand ol’ work. Then again, it may seem big, but it’s really as intimate as a fireside chat. Just another Altman film.