June 07, 2006
The Good The Bad The Ugly
Of late, Robert Altman has made no secret of his profound respect for radio — appearing, for instance, in the recent Oscar-winning documentary A Note of Triumph, in which he sings the praises of Norman Corwin.
Yet if radio had a hand in shaping Altman's aesthetic, the influence certainly isn't obvious. Radio maestros like Corwin — and his contemporary Orson Welles — were mellifluous, purposeful, and direct on the air. Altman's movies, on the other hand, tend toward the oblique, building their panoramas from a vast array of actors and discontinuous chunks of dialogue.
Only in the opening sequence of A Prairie Home Companion does Altman make clear that this style, in fact, derives from radio: as the credits roll over a shot of a heartland sky at nighttime, a radio dial spins on the soundtrack. We hear a little country music, a little evangelism, a little sportscasting — none lingered on long enough for us to get a sense of the larger broadcast.
And that's the Altman technique, neatly summarized. Each of his characters is a different radio station, and his roving cameras are the dials, restlessly shifting among the cast members. Not only, it seems, was he the first feature filmmaker to work with eight-track stereo (in the often inaudible California Split). He was, moreover, the first to elevate channel surfing into an art form.
Altman's penchant for improvisation might seem like a bad fit for a movie version of Garrison Keillor's beloved NPR show, which — despite Keillor's good humor and casual air — is meticulously timed and staged. ("It ends at 7:58:40," he joked to a New York audience when I saw it live in 1997.) But the two men have more in common as showmen than as artists, and their unexpectedly vital new film finds them standing on common ground.
For better or worse, both are idiosyncratic, prolific storytellers who trudge on year after year, accusations of repetition or staleness be damned. Both of them rose to prominence in the early '70s, and by now, clearly the most important thing for each man is simply that he keeps going.
The film is a backstage version of Keillor's show, based on the conceit that several of the program's recurring characters — private eye Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and the invented-for-the-movie Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) — exist in real life. Except for Noir, who's been hired as a security expert, they're all also regulars on a barely fictionalized St. Paul radio show (the host is known simply as "G.K."), which is about to broadcast its final performance from the city's Fitzgerald Theater.
"Altman film" and "variety show" are almost synonymous terms — and indeed, he and Keillor are united in their love of stock companies. In a story that splits time evenly between the dressing rooms and the proscenium, all of the players are allowed prodigious time to hog the screen — whether it's Dusty and Lefty singing about bad jokes, Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson crooning an ode to their mother, Keillor and Virginia Madsen dissecting a one-liner, or even Lindsay Lohan belting a surprise showstopper. By the time Tommy Lee Jones shows up as the "Axeman" — a representative of the company that's just bought the station — you've forgotten that he's in the movie.
Still enjoying his pickled-herring jingles, Keillor shrouds the film in a layer of warmth. By the same token, Altman's autumnal restlessness adds a new dimension to Keillor's familiar routines; never has one of his commercials for duct tape ("all repairs are temporary and short-term") sounded so poignant. As in John Cassavetes's Opening Night (1977), the stage show within the film was filmed before a real audience, and that adds to the semblance of live-radio spontaneity.
While A Prairie Home Companion isn't an Altman epic, like Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993), it may be Altman's loveliest movie, and it's possibly his most personal. Given the liberal musical interludes and the by-now-poignant presence of Altman regular Tomlin, it's not hard to see the movie as a kind of unofficial Nashville reunion. But it's also a reversal of Altman's attitude at the time of Nashville, locating humanity within its cartoon characters instead of holding up them up for ridicule. His misanthropy is in check, and his generosity with actors has never been more evident.
"Every show's your last show. That's my philosophy," G.K. says at one point. It's no doubt Altman's, too — but here's hoping for another curtain call.