Friday, 21 August 2009

Review: A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

When I first saw A Prairie Home Companion, back in 2006 -- it was in theatres then -- I knew it was a great movie, a funny movie, a movie with heart.

I knew it was one of the two great performances of Lindsay Lohan (I'll bet you choked when I just said that, didn't you), along with Freaky Friday and, if a third were to be included, Mean Girls.

I knew it was a great film; Roger Ebert thought so too, and included it as one of his Great Movies, giving it 4 stars out of 4.

What I didn't know was how sad it was. Wait, scratch that-- not exactly sad, but peaceful. Peaceful, in the sense that things were great, that things had gone on for as long as they could have and maybe, by a stroke of luck, a little bit longer than scheduled, but now, right now, now was the time to wave goodbye. To lower the curtain. To turn your radio off, and leave it off.

You see, for all its folksy trimmings, for all the charm it exudes, A Prairie Home Companion is, at its core, a film about one and one thing only.


(I understand your confusion as to why I began this review on such an ominous note, but I hope you'll forgive me; things will become clearer as time goes on.)

Why death? Why death, in a film that, by watching the trailer, you'd think was worlds, universes away from the subject?

Robert Altman, despite having two other movies in pre-production when Prairie Home Companion was completed, knew, somehow, some way, that this would be his last film. It was to be originally called The Last Broadcast-- a title rejected because executives wanted to capitalize on the appeal of the radio show for which the film is named. It was a good choice; The Last Broadcast wouldn't be sufficient. It would be too obvious. It would give the game away.

So much, so much meaning, so much significance is packed into the film that it took a second watch, this time just a few days ago -- August 21st, to be exact, when I was channel surfing and it just so happened Bravo had it on -- to truly appreciate its brilliance.

I'd been listening to the soundtrack and read Roger Ebert's reflections on the film. In a way, I knew what to expect. I knew that Altman died later the same year, on Nov. 30th, and that alone was enough to clue me in that A Prairie Home Companion was a sort of elegy.

In the film, the elegy is for the last broadcast of the titular radio show; afterwards, the Fitzgerald Theatre, where it is recorded with a live audience, will be demolished. However, the show's host, Garrison Keillor (playing himself, in a sense) has no desire to let the audience in on this fact. The show must go on. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, to quote Macbeth, a work of art very much about death and remembrance as well, in its own way.

Something Shakespearian seems to have contributed to the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen)'s characterization; she flits in and out when one least expects it-- I spotted her in the background of a scene when I saw the film again and was ecstatic I'd done so-- and seems to appear to certain people; to all others, she is invisible. (Madsen wrote an excellent reflection on the film that everyone considering watching the film, or that has already watched the film, should read.)

Detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) takes an especial interest in her, and develops a sort of crush on the Dangerous Woman. We learn that her name, as an angel, is Asphodel, but that, on Earth, she died in a car accident while listening to the radio show and realizing a joke Keillor told wasn't as funny as she thought.

"What was the joke?" she asks, when she gets a chance to meet him.

"Two penguins are standing on an iceberg," Keillor says. "The first says "It looks like you're wearing a tuxedo." And the second one says "I can't imagine why I wouldn't be.""

"And that's funny?" she asks.

"I guess it's funny because people laugh at it," he says, and is called back on stage. Meanwhile, the Dangerous Woman sits on the edge of the set. Her expression is indecipherable, but we know she's contemplating what Keillor's just said.

We get a similar look when Guy Noir makes a pass of sorts at her, asking, in essence, what she would feel if she were kissed, being an angel and therefore not of earthly body.

She pauses to think, her expression not giving anything away.

"I would feel love," she says, and startles Noir into colliding backwards with a hatstand.

These little moments make the film what it is. Guy Noir makes a toast with stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph) to happy endings, using champagne he finds in a theatre minibar. "The Day is Short" is performed onstage while a cast member is found to have passed on in the dressing room. The same cast member's body exhumes post-death gases while cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) stand outside the door and talk with Noir, adding a sort of dark humour to the scene.

There is darkness, but not a lot of humour to Tommy Lee Jones's performance as the Axeman, an executive that has come to end the show and arrives towards the end; by this time, we can only shake our heads despairingly at his ignorance of the show's impact. The Dangerous Woman appears in the luxury box he's been given, later on. A lot of death there.

Death, yes, but also life: Molly is pregnant, and the youngest in the Johnson family tree, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), makes her stage debut when it is discovered there are six extra minutes of airtime left in the broadcast. Excited, she races downstairs to grab her notebook full of poems and songs (mostly about suicide), but the song she wants to sing ("Your Barn Doors Are Open", I believe) is on a piece of paper she drops on the way upstairs.

The only song she can think of singing is "Frankie and Johnny", and she does an excellent job. It precedes a section where Lola's mother Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and her sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) perform "Goodbye to My Mama", a song so beautiful that even the Axeman weeps; of course, Dusty and Lefty bounce on after and sing the ribald "Bad Jokes", ruining the moment. We see the Axeman's reflection twice on the glass of the box while they perform, showing he is of two minds.

He makes up his mind, in the end -- the Fitzgerald is demolished; we knew it would happen. What's far more interesting is the epilogue, set in a nearby diner: Keillor, Noir, and the Johnson sisters are discussing a farewell tour, to visit all the towns they didn't get to visit when the show was on the air. Lola rushes in and out -- she works in finance now, and reveals the shabby state of her mother's assets before she leaves -- dressed in black, as if for a funeral. Dusty and Lefty come in and sit at the bar. Noir can't stop staring, puzzled, in the mirror by the table.

The Dangerous Woman enters, after a long shot of her walking, in the rain, past the glass windows of the diner. Everyone can see her, although Noir and Keillor are the first to notice, judging by the order the four turn around. She smiles and moves past the camera -- there's a closeup of her trenchcoat's left breast pocket -- then the image fades.

This is the end, aside from a joyous singalong of "In the Sweet By and By" over which the credits play. Perhaps the Angel of Death has come to remind the cast that the show is better off without a farewell tour? We'll never know.

I'd like to end with Roger Ebert's review, quoting a conversation between Keillor and Lola:

"I'm of an age when if I started to do eulogies, I'd be doing nothing else," he says.

"You don't want to be remembered?"

"I don't want them to be told to remember me."

This is an illuminating conversation, and sets in motion the attitude the cast has towards this, the last broadcast-- a title that, as I've said, would make the film too obvious an elegy. The best remembrances are understated, celebratory, and not without a laugh-- or two, or three, or four.

A Prairie Home Companion is one of those remembrances.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Paul. I love your site, especially the book review.