a prairie home companion (2006)

As far as classic filmmakers go, there aren't very many left around who are still alive and energetic enough to take on the task of directing a feature. In this way, it's more than fitting that a film about the decline and eventual death of aspects in our culture that have passed their prime should be directed by one such filmmaker. By such a filmmaker, I mean a classic one, not one that has passed his prime, as evidenced in his new film A Prairie Home Companion. No, this effort more than shows how Robert Altman, unlike the characters in his new film, is still a capable, and most importantly, relevant director in today's cinema. A Prairie Home Companion is the work of a man who not only understands the degree to which bygones are truly gone, but has experienced them first hand. Chalk it up with last week's Cars for a double-feature lamenting the loss of classic American culture. It also joins Cars in being a satisfying, albeit slightly under whelming, endeavor that comes from a mind that, in the past, has done far better. The film itself, however, offers a lot to enjoy, and reinforces Altman as a director who isn't ready for "The Axeman" quite yet.

For me, this film was of great interest because I happen to be working my way through Altman's filmography as we speak, and with each passing film I grow more and more appreciative of just how much skill the man has. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award at this year's academy awards and it couldn't have gone to a more deserving man. His 1984 film Secret Honor is one of the most impressively directed pieces ever made (it contains only one set and only one actor, and it still manages to be captivating), and his moody 1977 ensemble film 3 Women thrives on a murky, slightly mystifying, tone that only a master could create. I was excited to find out that he was making a new film, but when I heard that it was a comedy, I became a bit nervous. M*A*S*H, arguably his most popular film, is the only other comedic movie of his that I've seen, and to be honest, I found it pretty lackluster. Shock humor fades over time, and the days where the humor in that film was shocking have long since passed. Prairie Home, in a way, seems to realize this and even takes a jab at it in one its most enjoyable segments about dirty jokes. It's this kind of realization that makes up the bulk of A Prairie Home Companion, the idea of a once great institution slowly fading away through the sands of time. There was a heyday for radio programs like this one. A time when America took things slow and the radio was the most important piece of furniture in the house. There was a crackling tune coming through those small AM speakers, a cool drink in your hand and a glowing sunset in the distance. A Golden Age for America once existed, didn't it? Cars certainly didn't convince me, but A Prairie Home Companion did just that. The film opens with Altman's nod to fans of, not only classic radio, but classic cinema as well. Was it right up my alley? You're damn right it was. We begin, not on a stage, but in small diner, where top sleuth and private eye Guy Noir sits finishing his dinner and burning away the last of a hand-rolled cigarette. He tosses the man behind the counter a few coins and, knocking back the last of his coffee, stands and cooly exits the diner. We don't actually see any of this happening, but we know it is, somehow or other. Or, maybe it's not, but like all good radio, Altman's film causes us to want to fill in the gaps, to add in our own little pieces of the action that are just beyond each frame. Guy Noir, played fantastically by Kevin Kline, is easily the film's best character. It's the kind of performance that gives parody a good name, a joke on the stereotypical noir detective that is done with the utmost love and never strays too far into camp territory.  The other characters are treated with the same kind of respect, although some are more successful than others. I would assume that one would have to be a fan of the radio show to truly understand and appreciate all the little nods, jabs and references, but as an uninitiated observer I found them enjoyable. The film moves along at a very slow pace. It doesn't necessarily drag; it moseys. It maintains an admirably small scope by centering all of the action on the night of the show's final broadcast. We get to see the anxiety of these relics fully realized as they come to terms with the fact that they no longer have a place in the world. However, a pitfall in this approach is that, while they have their dramatic moments and we get to see their characters develop, they also have to put on a show. This makes for a few more musical numbers than I would have wanted to see, but most of them are nice to watch. Altman somehow films full segments of people standing on a stage with guitars singing about 10 or 15 times and keeps it interesting almost every time. This is not a director who makes his films easy on himself. 

If Altman was able to work wonders with the smallest principle cast ever (1),  he flexes his ability to command a large cast (15 principle players) this time around. Great performances are given by just about everyone from Meryl Streep to Woody Harrelson to Lily Tomlin to John C. Reily to Lindsay Lohan ... you get the point. The one aspect of the film I simply could not get into was Virginia Madsen's character. Known only as 'Dangerous Woman' (read: Femme Fatale), she plays an angel of some kind sent down to help the cast of Prairie Home deal with their troubles. When she first appeared, it seemed she really would play some sort of femme fatale to interact with the Guy Noir character. I was instantly taken by her Barbara Stanwyck-esque performance and loved the character. (for the record, if anyone's planning a neo-noir in the near future, casting Virginia Madsen as your female lead would be a fantastic idea, I'm just sayin'). However, as soon as the "angel" thing was brought in, the whole character began to become irritating, I just wasn't buying it. The film as a whole, however, I was buying, the direction especially. I'm mentioning how freaking awesome Altman is about every other sentence, but it needs to be done. With a large cast of stars, getting good performances can be tough, but he does it. Dealing with limitations in the setting can prove fatal when trying to keep a film fresh. While he trips up a bit in this department, it's still better than most other directors could even hope for. Altman's camera, like time, is in contant motion. His shots linger for an extremely long time without cutting, but the camera itself never ceases to glide through the action, around the characters, across the sets. It got a bit tiresome at points, but his aesthtic sense always kept the frame interesting. The music provides the high and low point for the picture. Some of the songs were great, but only in moderation can I take folk music. after the 7th or 8th song I began to cringe every time they started up another. I mean, by the time Tommy Lee Jones shows up to "axe" the show, you're starting to think you might agree with him. Overall, good music, good performances, and good direction make it a relaxing film experience. You just sort of sit back and let it take you away. I just don't know if I'd let it take me away twice. 

Anyway, if you like the radio show, check out this film because you'll definitely enjoy it. A nod to the dying/dead genres of noir, westerns, radio drama and all things politically incorrect, A Prairie Home Companion is something you won't soon forget. Not a perfect film by any stretch, but a healthydose of laid back filmmaking. As Altman accepted his award at the Oscars this year he finally let the secret out that he'd had a heart transplant a number of years ago, and that by heart-years, this 81 year old director was only somewhere in his mid-forties. "This award may be premature", he joked "I may have four more decades of filmmaking ahead of me". Here's hoping. I have a feeling Altman has more than a few great films left in him before his time comes. In that spirit, I salute his latest effort.