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A Prairie Home Companion

This elegiac comedy/fantasy from Robert Altman is not a “concert film” of a performance of “Prairie”, but a work of fiction about the closing night of a long-running radio show much like it, in which Garrison Keillor plays a befuddled version of himself.   Keillor rubs many intellectual types the wrong way, but I’m not too bothered by his complacent folksiness.   There’s a droll serenity to his persona that I like.   Even his bland warbling has a certain warmth, and though his gentle satire of Middle America is not really my cup of tea, his show is enjoyable when it showcases the stirring traditional music sung by Americans on those long, lonely prairie nights and in their churches--music of community.   Much of this film is music; the songs are sung by the actors, who acquit themselves decently, though I doubt you’ll be compelled to trouble your local record store clerk for a copy of the soundtrack.  

I was intrigued to see what would be the harvest of the conflict between the visions of Keillor, who wrote the film, and the iconoclastic Altman.   The resulting film’s voice is recognizably Altman’s.   He has a distinctive way of seeing; he’s not directing the ensemble cast so much as he’s observing them, as interested as we are to see what they’ll do next.   I enjoyed his playful mise en scene: framed by doorways and mirrors, discrete images are formed.   Thus, in a sense his frame contains several shots at once, combining mise en scene and montage.    
Backstage we meet colorful characters such as the Johnson Girls (Meryl Streep, Lilly Tomlin, and Meryl’s teen-angst-ridden daughter, played by Lindsay Lohan).   We’re reminded that one of the things cinema is “about” is the human face whenever we see a close-up of Tomlin’s wonderful mug.   "Prairie" connoisseurs will know that Keillor plays detective Guy Noir in the show’s weekly, moderately amusing noir send-up; in the film, Noir is brought to life in a quite funny turn by Kevin Kline as the theatre’s incompetent security guard, investigating sightings of a mysterious woman moving about the theater (Virginia Madsen).  

Slight, but full of laughter and music, this film is a pleasure from start to finish. 


- Jul 19, 2006

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