Monday, January 14, 2008

A Prarie Home Companion

Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod*

A Prairie Home Companion" is one of the best shows on the radio (the best being "This American Life," but we'll save that for later...or better yet, check it out for yourself on the link). Over the course of its 30 year run, this less-than-"Grand Ol' Opry"-wanna-be has presented home-spun music of all genres--from Gospel to Grand Opera (and has seemingly unearthed every folk-artist extant in the country) and combined spriritual optimism (albeit Lutheran, which takes the joy out of it) with a cynical farm-land realism, all reflecting the philosophy and upbringing of its host Garrison Keillor, whose low story-telling voice is as lulling as cattle moaning in the pasture at night. Keillor writes it all, performs in most of it and serves as ringmaster, finally capping it off with his stool-talk reverie, The News from Lake Wobegon, land of low expectations ("Where all the women are strong, all the men, good-looking and all the children are above-average"). Old time radio techniques and phony commercials--for "Powder-Milk Biscuits" ("Heavens they're tasty and expeditious!") or for "The Ketchup Advisory Board" wind their way through everything, with just enough toothsome satire to leaven the bitter with the sweet. It's Community-Theater of the Mind, a staple of Public Radio, and manages to embrace and cherish both red and blue states in it's musty woolen blanket of nostalgia.

In the long string of Saturdays that I've listened I've heard moments of great beauty that I'll never forget,** while, on the other hand, I've wondered more than once why Keillor needs to sing so damned much. It's been a comforting friend on lonely cross-country drives, and it's been known to make a car load of rowdies quiet in contemplation.

But anyone going into
Robert Altman's "A Prarie Home Companion" or "PHC" is due for a bit of a shock. Written by Keillor (from a story by him and Ken LeZebnik), it incorporates familiar bits and pieces from the broadcasts throughout. Characters come to life in the form of show-stalwarts cowboys Dusty and Lefty and private eye Guy Noir (not hard-boiled, so much as hard-up), as well as the subjects of one of Keillor's Wobegon yarns-the Johnson Sisters. There's an old country music type named Chuck Akers, who stands in for the PHC perennial guest, Chet Atkins. Why, I even remember the episode the Penguin joke came from. But the radio show itself is used as backdrop to the intertwining stories of the participants on the last night of the show, which overwhelms the conceit of using the show in the first place. And's about death, primarily.

Which must make every blue-haired old lady in the audience go, "What'd they do that for? It's supposed to be 'A Prarie Home Companion!!"

A little back-story: Keillor had written a screenplay called "Lake Wobegon Days," about a local boy coming home to bury his father (it sounds alarmingly like "
Elizabethtown!") Altman rejected it, saying: 1) "The death of an old man is not a tragedy" and 2)"I want to make a movie of 'A Prarie Home Companion,' instead!" I can just see the sour-lemon look on Keillor's face when Altman said that! "What does he wanna make a movie of that for?" he no doubt grumbled. "I've been doing that for years! And it's RADIO!"

Yup. But it's also live, which means chaos, and Altman always loved chaos. And it has music, which to Altman means community, and PHC ends, as the show usually does, with a group-sing of an old gospel standard--kinda shaky and maybe a little off-key, but still, it's everyone putting aside their differences and pulling together to make something nice, a trope that goes back to the films of Howard Hawks. And it ends with a grace note--an impromptu final bow from the wings.*** Altman's been making that kind of film for years, and death has always been a player, in "M*A*S*H" (whose so-familiar theme song is entitled "Suicide is Painless"), "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts," and "Gosford Park." And "The Long Goodbye."

And the reaction is usually "What'd he do that for?"

Amidst the songs by long-time PHC participants, the bits and skits, the players**** hook up and separate and talk over each other in a life-like muddle, Keillor's self-initialed character is constantly correcting the details of the various versions of History that he's concocted, and Death in the form of Virginia Madsen wanders the theater. Madsen's a wonderful actress (she deserved her Oscar nomination for "Sideways" and to win it, as well), but she's not terribly convincing in the part. Not entirely her fault. It's written as clueless and all-knowing, deeply philosophical and naive--Meryl Streep would have had difficulty with it. Plus, it's a little unclear just how she operates. Some people who see her, die. Some don't. Some folks who are unaware of her die. It's inconsistent. You'd want Death to have some kind of definite procedure, but I guess that's asking too much of a Grim Reaper. Death doesn't have rules.

But it's significant that before the final song, Death makes one final appearance and she heads our way until she obscures the camera in white.

"A Prarie Home Companion" was Robert Altman's last film. He died at age 81 on November 20th.

And as he said, "The death of an old man is no tragedy." Especially one who could still challenge an audience right up to the end.

"Live Every Show Like It's Your Last." The bow's yours, Bob.

"A Prarie Home Companion" is a Rental--but that's because it has left the theater...I repeat, it has left the theater. Before, it was good for a thoughtful Matinee.

* The German Title of "Once Upon a Time in the West," translated, means "Play me a Song of Death"

** a college chorus group solemnly singing John Lennon's "Julia" will haunt me for the rest of my life, and even a sing-along with a crowd in Buffalo last week, made me dab my eyes and smile at the cleverness with which it was done (It's "Angels Watching Over me" in Segment 2 of the link)

*** Courtesy of the always-wonderful John C. Reilly. But before that, one of the joys of the film is an impromptu bit by Meryl Streep, where she runs from the stage, grabs Keillor, who's already shambled off, drags him, surprised, back for a short, sweet dance--then turns around and leaves him, his arms holding her memory, as he watches--not sure what to do next. Then he turns and shuffles off-stage again. It feels spontaneous, and it feels perfect for both characters...and for Keillor in real life.

**** How's Lindsey Lohan, you gossip-mongers ask? Good, actually! How're you?

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