A Prairie Home Companion
By Brett McCracken
June 15, 2006
Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is based on Garrison Keillor’s unique variety show of the same name, which has—in various forms—been a staple of public radio since 1974. The Saturday evening broadcast was designed to be a sort of nostalgic, anachronistic look at small town America through the combination of comedic skits, live folk music, news updates from “Lake Wobegon” and fictitious “brought to you by” commercials from products like “Bebop-a-reebop Rhubarb Pie.” The show can be heard on public radio across the world, is often broadcast from special “tour” locations like the Hollywood Bowl, and has now been made into a movie that does it all a great deal of justice.
There’s really not much else in culture comparable to the Prairie milieu (somewhere between A Mighty Wind and The Grand Ole Opry), and the characters that the show has created—as well as the real performers behind them—make up just the sort of “slice of a specific sort of life” community that director Robert Altman loves to make films about. His last film was about the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (2003’s The Company), preceded by one about the 1930s British aristocracy (2001’s Gosford Park). And films that feature country music are certainly nothing new to the director. Altman’s 1975 drama, Nashville, remains one the seminal works of his 30+ film career.
The thing that makes Robert Altman (who, incidentally, is from my own hometown—Kansas City), so quintessential as an American filmmaker is that he has a style that has stuck with him for more than 30 years, to the point that the term “Altman-esque” is a vocab essential in film schools everywhere. Basically Altman is the master of the ensemble drama. His large casts of fantastic actors populate very specific places and music-set moods. Typically his films take place over short periods of time and focus on the existential minutiae of humans of various classes, backgrounds and perspectives thrust together in some space or experience where the tension is between homeostasis and impending change.
With A Prairie Home Companion, Altman continues in these thematic veins, focusing on the peculiar ins and outs of the cast and crew of the long-running radio show. The setting is the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota—the real-life home of Prairie—and the time is the fictionalized final broadcast of the long-running show. Apparently a rich and villainous Texas oilman (Tommy Lee Jones) has bought out the theater in order to turn it into a parking lot. Thus, Garrison Keillor (playing himself, hilariously) and company must end the show and move on.
From the outset we know this film is about endings, and how central to life that theme is—both in an awareness of mortality but also just of the passing of time. Relationships change, culture transforms, priorities shift, life goes on.
The fact that the film’s director and writer are both getting on in years (Altman is 81, Keillor 63) probably explains the preoccupation with mortality, though the theme is certainly one which people of all ages can relate to. Altman and Keillor are careful to craft a world that—while quirky enough to be entertaining—is grounded in the reality of life. There are deaths, pregnancies, tears, laughter, frustration, even fart jokes (thanks to comedic cowboys, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson). Altman’s camera passes like a ghostly observer through the halls, back-stages and dressing rooms of the theater, peeping in on various intimate conversations where we only glimpse what must be an incredibly complex web of relationships and history between these people.
All of the characters are interesting, though some more than others. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin stand out as singing sisters with Minnesotan accents, Kevin Kline has a ball as the show’s notorious spoof detective, Guy Noir, and Lindsay Lohan, well, she isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Virginia Madsen’s character (“death/mystery lady”) is really the only one I could have done without. C’mon, do we really need to personify the theme of mortality?
No, my favorite character in the film is definitely F. Scott Fitzgerald, the St. Paul native for whom the Fitzgerald Theater is named. The Gatsby author died well before Prairie broadcast its first show, and his only appearance in the film is as a carved head bust; and yet, the spirit of Fitzgerald haunts the hall and informs the “all things pass” feeling of the film better than anything possibly could.
Fitzgerald and his characters—often transplants from the Midwest to the East Coast—occasionally look with fondness at the certainty of middle America, if they can still glimpse it. For Nick Carraway in Gatsby, it doesn’t take much time in the surrealism of roaring New York to forget all but the essential facts of his Midwestern home (“Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe”). Indeed, for those who have lived too long away from the cold winters and humid summers of their childhood, the aura of the Prairie Home can begin to look a lot like the idealized, fuddy-duddy farm motif that defines Keillor’s Wobegon world.
For anyone who ever “moves on” from anything, what is left behind takes on a life of its own in the memory. Shows like A Prairie Home Companion endure because they entertain but also because they are essential companions on our journeys through life, our marches toward mortality. We need the subjective past to get us through the objective future. Everything ends, Fitzgerald might say, but that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again. “Can’t repeat the past?” cried Gatsby famously. “Why of course you can!”
Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota but died in Hollywood, and while all of us aren’t from a prairie home, we all come from somewhere and often end up far from there. As such, we long for “home,” whatever it may be, and the closer to death we come, the clearer we see the picture of that place.
In the final moments of the film, when Prairie (which originally—and appropriately—got its name from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota) takes its final bow, the cast unites to sing the classic hymn “In the Sweet By And By.” As the curtain falls on this place, this movie, and (for some) this life, there comes this comfort: There's a land that is fairer than day, And by faith we can see it afar; For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there. / In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.