Saturday, June 10, 2006

Microphone Home: A Prairie Home Companion

Robert Altman is perhaps cinema's greatest tourist. Over his thirty plus years as a major director, he's touched just about every conceivable genre (war, western, private eye, sci-fi, biopic) and an astonishing range of topics. He's made films about Hollywood producers, professional gamblers, country singers, cartoon characters, politicians, lawyers, doctors, English servants, and even ballet dancers. He only stays long enough to leave his mark before booking his trip for his next destination. His latest cinematic excursion takes him into the world of radio satirist Garrison Keillor.

It is not a world I am familiar with. Though I know of Keillor's reputation, I've never listened to the radio program named A Prairie Home Companion that he's hosted, off and on, for decades. In the cinematic Prairie, Keillor's broadcast is in peril; the company that distributes the program has been purchased by a Texas conglomerate which intends to end the show and bulldoze its home — St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater — to the ground. Altman follows Keillor, as well as the cast and crew of A Prairie Home Companion as they create the final broadcast.

Altman's advanced age and health problems (he recently revealed he's had his heart replaced, and just this week cancelled his publicity appearances to promote the Prairie premiere because of a bad case of the flu), and Keillor's inherently nostalgic aesthetic, made an elegiac tone inevitable and, indeed, the film is completely consumed with the past. Though Keillor winks at the audience with the line, "We don't look back in radio, that's the beauty of it," he and Altman do nothing but look back, with sadness and with a smile. Virginia Madsen plays an angel, and you might observe that in the beautiful picture above, just like in the movie, she is framed to give the impression of a bright halo over her head. Though most of the movie is shot in enough warm browns and reds to suggest sepia tones, Madsen, in a blindingly white overcoat, is always lit with fluorescents, setting her off from the rest of the mortal cast and implying her embrace is not nearly as warm as it appears to be.

Still, despite the wistful atmosphere and the director's advanced age, A Prairie Home Companion is surprisingly lively. The camera never stops moving as the actors flit around the Fitzgerald Theater, running from the stage to the wings to the dressing rooms and back and several shots — a crane that slides up through the stage to follow Keillor in his preparations for the broadcast, a long take that suddenly reveals Madsen from behind a raised window — suggest Altman is a very nimble 81-year-old (the on-stage sequences reminded me most directly of Scorsese's The Last Waltz). Though Madsen's angel of death remarks at one point that, "the death of an old man is not a tragedy," it's very clear that Altman's, be it tomorrow or a year or a decade from now, will certainly be one, for this fan at the very least.


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