Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 12, 2006 11:10 am 
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It's been said Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor were made for each other: both are in their way unique "auteurs" devoted to regional Americana, the vagaries of American family life, and have depicted these things with a bitter-sweet humor that flirts with sentimentality. Both have been at work in their signature styles and mediums capturing the spirit of the American heartland since the 1970's. Both like to work in overlapping pastiches, play with voices, delineate regional ennui.

But let's not forget: Keillor's long-running "Prairie Home companion" is a radio show. Keillor is a raconteur, a man who works with sound, not image. He's also a writer. He works on a very small scale, and not as a stager of drama, except in tiny vignettes. And above all he is a brilliant monologist. And a homely philosopher, and sometimes a great one. Certainly a man who can bring a lump to your throat and a voice that's as indigenous and familiar as any that's been heard in this country for the last thirty years.

Altman has directed a scenario in which GK, as he's called in the film, seeks to dramatize and memorialize his three decades of weekly radio shows before a live audience. However, despite the use of a real theater to stage the film's action, the audience remains faceless and voiceless in the movie as it is in the show. The great director has assembled a cast of splendid movie actors that includes Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, with John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson, as two pairs of singers, and Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, and Lindsay Lohan. Performing unexpectedly at the show's end to fill in left-over minutes, Lohan provides the brightest, most emotional musical moment.

Streep and Tomlin are good at the overlapping voices thing as they reminisce in a dressing room about a history as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, two sisters from a family of traveling country singers whose only real pleasure in life growing up was their music (even if they weren't very good). Kline is a wonderful mixture of dash and blunder as GK's downbeat detective Guy Noir. Keillor's usual band and some professional singers also do their bit skillfully, as does his old fashioned sound effects man, Tom Keith. All this is good fun, and a celebration of the show for its fans.

The dilemma GK was faced with was to make a story, form an arc, out of something that in truth never changes from one week to another and hasn't for thirty years. To provide a shape to the movie's action he pretends the show is housed in a single theater which has been bought by a rich Texan (Jones) to demolish it after this last show and turn the space into a parking lot. There's also a death angel, played by Madsen, who's like one of those babes who invariably come into the offices of old fashioned detectives, and Guy Noir rises to the bait and flirts with her. The angel and the flirting have a haunting feel and evoke Keillor's recurring themes in the Guy Noir stories rather well. But the stories never really soar in this movie version, because the images pin them down. And we really know all this business of the show ending because of a demolished theater is a flimsy fiction.

Altman's symphonic, overlapping style is perfect for evoking a radio variety show staged before a live audience. The only trouble is, and always remains, that "A Prairie Home Companion" is a radio show. Everything that happens on the actual show on radio is funnier, quirkier, and imaginatively richer when heard the way Keillor usually stages it, as pure sound, without images. Guy Noir is usually the voice of GK himself, and the fun is in hearing all the different voices he and his staff and his guests do, knowing they're the same people doing different voices but not seeing them, and therefore better able to imagine all the different characters. The essence of radio is that it is not seen and hence the essence of radio cannot be captured in a movie.

There seem to be more of Keillor's mock commercials for duct tape, etc., and fewer of his signature elaborations of Minnesota Lutheran dourness -- and none of the usually routine jokes about other regions, because the show is depicted as not touring out of state. While offstage dramas are expanded, the loss is of what's best on the show itself -- GK's fluent riffs on tacky Americana, his ornate shaggy dog stories about funny losers. The point of his show is its dryly witty pointlessness. And that point is lost in the film's effort to find a point, to reach a finale.

The elegant selflessness of Keillor's style does come through in his repeated refusal, in the film, to make any farewell speeches. In radio every show's your last show, he says. The essence of radio is consistency: it exists in an endless present. This time the cast can be bawdier than radio usually allows. The Reilly-Harrelson team tells a series of crude jokes, driving the show's producer up the wall.

But what happened to "And that's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average"? That famous ending sentence never comes, nor the little story and the homespun philosophy that lead up to it. In bringing the show to life onscreen, Keillor and Altman have managed to lose some of its best and truest moments.

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