Genre Soup

Film It's fitting that final film of the late Robert Altman should bare all of the hallmarks of his directing style. Throughout his career, the director strove to work against all the expectations of traditional storytelling, throwing out such apparently important conventions in storytelling and characterisation in favour of a kind of faux-realism in which events occurred, characters reacted to them and the film progressed with the very minimum of structure. Such was the style called Altmanesque and so it goes with A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best films of his career.

Another of Altman's genre experiments and his first attempt at a true backstage musical, the group of performers pulling together to put on a show, in this case, using one of the well worn plotlines, under the threat of closure. 'A Praire Home Companion' is the fictionalisation of a real weekly show of folk and country which in the film is to end after its host radio station has been sold.

Its stalwarts are gathered together for one last hoorah and the film progresses almost in real time during that final broadcast, weaving in and out of this ragtag group of friends as they face the possibility of never performing together again. None of them have what could be considered their own storyline -- instead they're sketched in, their chatter providing little bits of information about who they are and what they want in life -- which is mostly to carry on playing good music.

What makes this so complex, so typically Altman, is that rather than simply offering that good music and chat amongst these familiars, which would have been perfectly enjoyable, the director along with screenwriter Garrison Keillor (who also appears as the compare of the show) adds an extra layer of the fantastic and creates a dream-like atmosphere.

Also fittingly considering the number of jingles that are performed throughout about food, Altman has created a kind of genre-soup, in which many of the characters seem to be representing some film-cycle from old Hollywood. Most obvious of these is Guy Noir (Kevin Klein) who provides a Chandleresque voiceover to introduce and close out the movie, in and around a diner straight out of a Robert Hopper painting.

Elsewhere, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) have walked out of a cowboy picture complete with hats and guns cocked and ready, family singing group Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) are like veterans of a women's film, Virginia Madsen's mysterious blonde provides an element of the supernatural and to stretch the analysis, Lindsey Lohan is the epitome of the teen film, writing superficial poetry about death until she's faced with the real thing.

These genre games continue into the music which mixes country with folk and blues with brilliant effect. A key success is that the rhythms moved an inveterate country music avoider like me, tapping my foot along throughout the upbeat numbers and holding back the tears everywhere else. The music is performed by a mixture of real musicians playing themselves and the 'stars' all of whom are able to reflect the notion that they could actually make a good fist of a career should the acting gigs dry up.

The concert, is the unifying motion in the film, continuing even as other action happens off stage. If there's a problem, it's that sometimes the music is so good that the cutaways become irritating and I really hope that there will be a dvd containing an uncut version of the whole concert. It's interesting that Altman concentrates completely on the company, rarely showing audience members or even making one or two of them principle characters. Instead they're hidden in the darkness of the auditorium, almost as though we're meant to imagine ourselves sitting there instead.

The acting in the film is first rate. Far from providing the bum note some have suggested, Keiller is deeply effecting and in places heartbreaking as a principled man who's simply taking life's brickbats with dignity and a song. Harrelson and Reilly are a perfect double act, convincingly joshing their way through one of the concert's highlights 'Bad Jokes' (which I'm sure was once a routine used by some British comedy duo); Streep and Tomlin provide a startling harmony too both in song and during their dressing room scenes in which they look back over their hardspun country lives; Klein is a stand-out for giving dimension to what could have been a comic book character and Virginia Madsen radiates the same ethereal quality she displayed during the famous wine scene from Sideways.

Much of the film's poignancy stems from the overall feeling that this is the work of someone who knows it's to be their final film. As well as the end of the radio series and the theatre there are incidents within which point to the work of a man who is trying to sum up their work and to indicate that there will be no more. It reminds me of Shakespeare, whose final solo play, The Tempest is filled with references to previous work and whose central character, the wizard Prospero often appears to be communicating the end of everything to his audience.

Of course, this is attributing meaning after the fact -- Altman was already preparing another film at the time of his death, but it's also interesting to note that like Shakespeare who would come out of retirement to collaborate with John Fletcher the bright young thing on The Two Noble Kinsmen, Altman was helped on set here (for insurance purposes) by Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who not that long ago was feited as his successor and has already been suggested to pick up the reigns on that dangling project, completing Altman's legacy.

See you Robert and thanks for leaving us this final treat.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you liked this movie! I'm a big fan of the radio show, and I'm originally from Minnesota, so I almost hesitated to see it for fear it would be all wrong. Here's what impressed me most of all. I was dismayed by the Johnson sisters' accent -- NOT Minnesotan, all wrong, grumble Streep should know better grumble, annoyed. And then a few minutes after I griped about it, lo and behold, they're actually from Wisconsin. Which is exactly right for how they sounded.

    You can catch bits of the show here --

    It really is quite silly and charming, even if admitting to liking it ages me by about 30 years.