A Prairie Home Companion

| June 14, 2006

It’s way too easy to dismiss A Prairie Home Companion as a tribute to the cultural anachronism that is small-town America. Where the men are of few words, the women keep the pies coming and the kids fashion fishing poles made out of saplings and spend their summers sipping lemonade down the lazy creek. It seems people love to laud Garrison Keillor for lending his dulcet tones as the narration to such a supposedly idyllic life.
But if you ever actually listened to his shows with a consistency, you’d get the bigger joke: that Keillor finds this take on Americana to be a load of bullshit–or probably in his lexicon, ” bull hooey.” Yes, his show showcases gospel hymns laced in banjo and gutbucket guitar–but sandwiched between the aw-shucks are enough dirty jokes to make Howard Stern blush. It’s just that Keillor’s language works like fine bourbon on the stomach: a pleasant burn, but a burn nonetheless. Lake Woebegon (Keillor’s fictional northern Minnesota hometown) is full of emotionally repressed couples, unwed, pregnant teenagers and bizarre adventures one normally wouldn’t consider from a town with a population under 5,000. The show has always held that the ordinary is quite extraordinary, so there’s really no point in celebrating the unique since it is so commonplace.
Which leads us to Robert Altman’s attempt at encapsulating Keillor’s tongue-in-cheek philosophy in the film bearing the same name as NPR’s flagship show. Essentially, the film works as almost a mockumentary of the actual program, centering around a fictional version of “APHC” which is being shut down by the new owners of the radio station run by Texas Christians.
In pure Altman style, the film weaves multiple storylines from the performers and theater crew. There’s GK (Keillor), the show’s ringleader whose folksy charm is tempered by his stoic outlook, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) who are all that’s left of a family singing troupe, Yolanda’s put-upon daughter (Lindsay Lohan), the profanely comic cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) a Phillip Marlowe clone with the observational skills of Inspector Clouseau who works as the theater security detail and spends most of the story chasing a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) whose ethereal beauty is only exceeded by her menacing presence–more menacing than the humorless axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) sent to shut down the show.
A Prairie Home Companion will be flustering to many. Aside from the show’s impending doom and a few showcase tunes, there’s little propelling the plot along. And what little drama inherent in the film seems to be brushed aside as a minor contrivance by Keillor. Everything inevitably dies, so why worry about such things? Midway through the film, a character is actually “called home,” and while everyone is crying backstage, Keillor seems more upset when Streep and company demand a eulogy during the show. For GK, the idea that anyone’s death would require such lavish attention passes absurd and is five miles towards insane.
Lohan: “What if you die some day?”
Keillor: “I will die.”
Lohan: “Don’t you want people to remember you?”
Keillor: “I don’t want them to be told to remember me.”
And thus, Altman and Keillor are two peas in a pod. Both are storytellers who enjoy telling stories where sometimes, a life-altering event teaches people nothing, and we all go about our business as if it never occurred at all. Aside from the dead man, Gosford Park leaves the same people as destitute, wealthy, myopic or obtuse as they were before their weekend. Such events are mere speed bumps in the endless parking lot of life.
This outlook could infuriate many a moviegoer who usually observes resolution instead of philosophically open endings. But during those final couple of hours of APHC’s fictional show, we are still witness to some genuinely funny jokes, an auspicious singing debut by Lohan’s shy poet of a character and so many beautiful performances by the ensemble cast that they give credence to acting as art instead of merely “playing the part.” And if Streep isn’t remembered as the greatest actress (or even actor) of her time, then I will lose all respect for the craft. Scanning my brain (and her IMDB profile) I cannot think of one role, one genre or one accent she couldn’t take and make her own.
Aside from a tacked-on ending, A Prairie Home Companion will make you appreciate the fact the you are breathing through its wit and soul…just don’t expect to get any sympathy from Keillor and Altman when you stop.

About the Author:

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly. He is an independent filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, and film teacher, currently living in Chicago.
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