I’ve long been a fan of Garrison Keillor: the original radio broadcasts of ‘Lake Wobegon Days’ were homespun nostalgia in excelsis. The book was even better, a lovely, lyrical slice of Americana. With Robert Altman at the helm, Keillor’s timeless, poignant prose found its way into another medium and the result – ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ – is a perfectly cast, witty, subtle, cleverly observed ensemble piece.
It’s also a swansong. A summation.
As much as I wish Altman could have made more films (after the release of ‘Short Cuts’, his multi-narrative Raymond Carver adaptation, he hinted he was planning two more Carver films), it’s fitting that ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ was his last. It’s so perfect and quintessentially Altman in so many ways.
‘M*A*S*H’, the film that made the director’s name and allowed him to plough an eccentric and unique furrow through American cinema, established him as a master of overlapping scenes; with ‘Nashville’, ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Gosford Park’ he put together ensemble casts par excellence; ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘The Player’ acerbically satirised the institutions of the military and Hollywood respectively.
All of these qualities (which are the keynotes to his best films) are present in ‘A Prairie Home Companion’. Parochial radio stations, corporate and personal self-importance, the lachrymose excesses of Country & Western music - all are gently, but effectively, sent up. Scenes overlap, character interrelationships merge and diverge and interlink. The cast is as eclectic as any Altman ever assembled: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Lohan, L.Q. Jones (a stalwart of Sam Peckinpah's films), Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly (the last two hilarious as a musical comedy duo).
Most poignantly of all, ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ is a film about endings. The death of its director, shortly after its completion, bestows upon the film an extra quality. And I’m still unsure as to how deeply this influences my appreciation of the film; seeing for the first time at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema, it sent me out of the auditorium with a tear in my eye, but how much of that was wrapped up in Altman’s passing? Catching the film on TV recently, a late night screening and a couple of glasses of wine already consumed, my reaction was similar.
If ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ had been made by any other (and crucially, still-living) director, would my perspective be different? How far does the heart rule the head?