Prairie Home

Depending on your appreciation of Keillor’s conflation of schmaltzy cornpone and dry, sly sting (which brings out, in the actors, ham on wry), either a dreamy afternoon in good company or a forceful lug-wrench to the soft area between your forehead and your ear. I fall in between: I am a sucker when Keillor stops singing and wanders around flatfooted, mumbling out yarns and sidestepping emotional reactions; I’m equally smitten with the extravagant “Midwestern” dramatics of Meryl Streep’s Johnson sister or the equally outsized snap of Lily Tomlin’s more bilious, bibulous Johnson sister. I also happily confess to loving John Reilly and Woody Harrelson shamelessly twanging and slanging away in the wings.

I’m less keen on the many false notes struck by the framing narratives (an odd misplaced wandering death angel, a vision more in keeping with Michael Landon than, say, Bergman; a dull plot about the end of the show, and a mean old capitalist from Texas, ably and acutely played by Tommy Lee Jones without one hint of whimsy but also lacking any hint of dramatic purpose); the waste of Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph and a few other stray supporters, left drifting with the wisp of character and comic “bits”. And I almost always turn off the radio “Prairie” (if Kris will let me) whenever anyone starts singing; that ain’t my cup of joe, and it wears about as poorly when seen as when heard.

So–for us Altman completists, there are some nice touches, and it’s another in his portraits of ensemble communities, dealing with death and heartache. But it’s a lot more ambling and shambling, a cousin to the amiable but underwhelming The Company and Kansas City. There are a couple wonderful shots: Kline closing a cigarette case on his desk, to reveal in the deep background, previously hidden by the case’s cover, Virginia Madsen; some nice bits with Jones watching the show, a bust of Scott Fitzgerald watching Jones.
Streep can actually sing, so that was enjoyable. I don’t regret seeing it, but I wish that I’d come across it some gray afternoon on tv, surprised and caught up. It’s better than a nap, and (for me) preferable to a mutant showdown. Your call.

18 thoughts on “Prairie Home

  1. mike, why are there always at least 10 words in your posts that i’ve never seen or heard?

    my favorite bits in PHC (the radio one) are the wonderfully rambling and pointless guy noir, in which nothing ever happens or even makes sense, the dramatic bits with the other great actors, the ketchup commercial, and the occasional lampoonings of george bush.

  2. I have to say that PHC is far and away my least favorite show on NPR. That’s too kind: I can’t stand a second of it, and I’m not alone. So while I’d like to see a new Altman film that’s not about Neve Campbell dancing, I won’t see this until DVD at the earliest, or when I’m seated in the seventh circle of hell at the latest.

    Unlike Mike, one of the few things I do find bearable is the music – or at least Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show when they’re on. The rest can go to hell. Or stay in Minnesota; there can’t be much difference between the two.

    I hope Altman’s next film is based on Morning Edition or This American Life.

  3. PHC is one NPR show I can’t listen too for its smug, safe liberalism. The other one is Terry (sic?) Gross on Fresh Air. Her whiny suck-up liberalism is like fingernails on chalk for me. I’ve never forgotten her interview with Michael Moore at the time ‘Roger and Me’ came out. She went at him (good, balanced liberal that she is) for telescoping events in the documentary and therefore distorting events. Moore just flattened her. Sadly she got up off the floor and continued interviewing to this day.

  4. what other kinds of liberalism would you expect from npr? and is there any other show on it that doesn’t do safe? npr is all about safe. if you don’t want safe you’ve got to listen to air america.

  5. jesus, folks, if, like me, you are perversely addicted to talk radio, where the right wing rules, you would fall on your knees in thanks for PHC and Terry Gross. And I sorta like much of the music–decent folk, country, bluegrass, etc. and it’s a bit of a reminder that radio is good for more than Power Blocks of Kansas! and tedious rants about liberals.

  6. i am perversely addicted to talk radio. i now listen to air america about the same amount as npr. and i’m very grateful when, on saturday and sunday nights, our major public radio station broadcasts the bbc world edition. right-wing radio has its perks, but after a while it just makes me too sick.

    i’m very, very grateful that the mike malloy show and the majority report air on our air america station just when i go to sleep (the majority report is pre-recorded). i like them both (fortunately it’s mostly sam seder, as i don’t much go for jeanine garofalo), and they are perfect for helping me cross the large, treacherous river between the world of wakefulness and the world of sleep. sometimes in the morning i catch the rachel maddow show and i just luuuuv it (her)!

  7. That 89.3 playlist is great. Thanks for the tip, Jeff. I am only at my computer for the Al Franken part of Air America most days and I find him tedious and far too even-handed.

    Enough audio: tonight promises a repeat of the first episode of season 3 of The Wire, and the premieres of new seasons of Deadwood and Entourage. Fun, fun, fun.

  8. My wife just loves Baby Snooks, Fibber McGee and Molly, and especially the Jack Benny Program. But for flat out laughs, give me Town Hall Tonight with Fred Allen.

  9. I’m on the “dreamy afternoon in good company” side of Mike’s initial post. Yeah, the framing devices are less than satisfactory, but Altman captures the spirit of the evening with trademark style and his camera glides throughout the space with utter and complete confidence (did the producers really need Paul Thomas Anderson on hand just in case Altman took a nose dive; perhaps Virginia Madsen’s character is Altman and Keillor’s wry wink at a culture that fears death second by second by second). A Prairie Home Companion is an older person’s movie, I think, elegiac and wistful but the material warrants such an approach. The angel of death might not mean much to those of us still on this side of middle age (I may have surpassed that boundary at 44 but I’m exercising like a demon to ensure a few good years with the grandkids), but I suspect a great many of the audience members who bought tickets at the cineplex could relate to her omniscient yet benevolent presence. I didn’t expect too much from the film, and the warmth and wryly sardonic tone of the endeavor worked for me. Meryl Streep is a marvel. Is it possible that this actor created two characters so far apart in temperment this year (and I didn’t have the pleasure to see her turn as Mother Courage in Central Park) that you wonder what it is she cannot do? She may very well be the greatest actor in the history of the craft (tall praise, but it is clear to me she never simply plays variations on her public persona but reinvents herself with each role to such a degree that it makes me cry simply to watch her work). Harrelson and Reilly are delightfully irreverent and Lily Tomlin is also great fun as the cantankerous sister who sings at the bottom of the register, allowing her sister to soar to greater and greater heights. The film’s 110 minutes went by very quickly on this autumn Saturday night and that was fine by me.

  10. I think P.T. Anderson was on hand should Altman become too sick to finish the film. I don’t think Altman’s well. Hence the honorary Oscar, a veritible kiss of death.

  11. Finally saw this and didn’t dislike it nearly as much as I had feared. In fact, as Reynolds said (is he, like Altman, also dead?) “when Keillor stops singing and wanders around flatfooted, mumbling out yarns and sidestepping emotional reactions”. Yeah, I liked that too. Maybe I’m getting so old as to appreciate it. I doubt it. There were glimmers of old Altman in there: Streep and Tomlin talking over each other backstage with the camera on a third person, l’il l’nsay Lohan. But Lily Tomlin as a singer?! zoiks. They could have at least dubbed someone else in there to save us all the wear and tear on our remote control’s FF button.

    Oh, and while on the topic of radio shows we like:

    This is by my friend Josh. He has most of the whole hour to tell his story. It’s harrowing, and riveting radio. Listen at your own risk and not around people you don’t want to see you cry.

    If that is too much for you – or you want more from Josh –

    then this:

    Act 3. “Please Re-Lease Me.” Surreal goodness.

  12. Oops . . . South America? No, Reynolds is in South Africa fighting for social justice.

    Tomlin did indeed sing in Nashville–fronting a gospel choir in a recording studio at the very beginning of the film. We also see her singing at a church service but her voice is not foregrounded.

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