Robert Altman didn’t see much of Minnesota. During his month-long stay in St. Paul this summer, he ventured beyond the Fitzgerald Theater and his hotel but once or twice. He came, though, and even if he didn’t see much, it seems as if he was out to conquer. He left for Hollywood with footage for a film in which, reportedly, the Fitzgerald Theater gets demolished, at least one character dies, and, most important, our beloved public radio program ceases to be. Who is this guy? And what does he want with A Prairie Home Companion?
For Prairie Home is not just the pride of Minnesota, but a refuge from the anxieties of television and a return to the relaxing pace of radio. For me, the show was a Midwestern haven when I was living in the San Francisco area, where people can’t afford lawns and the leaves never change. After work on Saturdays, I would collapse on my bed and listen to Garrison Keillor’s monologue, which was as soothing as a hot bath and a cold beer.
So when I first discovered that Robert Altman was going to direct a movie based on Prairie Home—well, at first I didn’t know what to think. “No one has ever made a good movie,” Altman has said. “Someday someone will make half a good one.” His own prolific career has certainly yielded some half-good films, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and Gosford Park, but I find myself disappointed by most of the others. However, even the worst ones—and Popeye is as awful as anything ever committed to celluloid—trouble me for a long time afterward … and I like to be troubled.
Altman has stated repeatedly that he tries to give his audience something to argue about afterward and that he frankly doesn’t care to appease everybody, or even anybody. He also considers his films to be like paintings, which partly explains the distinctively weak plots that irritate many filmgoers, myself included. After producing a litter of small, strange movies—thirty-one in all since 1970’s M.A.S.H.—it’s not as if Altman is suddenly going to change course now.
Prairie Home is going to be distinctively a Robert Altman picture, not a Garrison Keillor film (despite his having written the screenplay), and certainly not a Minnesota Public Radio movie. Curious fans of Keillor and the radio show can examine Altman’s plotless approach by starting with his last release, The Company (2003). The director threw together professional actors (Neve Campbell and Malcolm McDowell) and non-actors (dancers from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet); filmed the dancing, the squabbling, the parties, the practices; and then draped all this over a story line that, after an hour, was still not entirely discernable. It had something to do with the stress of being in a dance troupe and Campbell finally becoming the star of the company. Fans of ballet loved it; considering its paltry box-office take, I doubt many others jumped on board. But there were moments in that film that lingered with me later on, like a pleasant aftertaste following a bite of bittersweet chocolate.
Such as the sound of feet slapping against a stage. This is but one of myriad sound effects in a single scene of The Company, and it was totally surprising—just some brief, sharp thwacks punctuating the music and the dance. In that same scene, which took place during a performance in a Chicago park during a storm, you hear the zip of hands over fabric as a dancer is lifted; the company’s director whispering to a colleague; the rustle of butts shifting on seats; and, of course, the sounds of wind and rain and umbrellas opening.
As is often the case in an Altman film, The Company is aurally confounding; the director places microphones on numerous actors at once, whereas the usual practice is to have a boom mike overhead, or to later dub in dialogue, especially if there’s excess noise. But Altman digs excess noise the way Neil Young hungers for feedback. He likes capturing the background hubbub, forcing us to listen hard and try to figure out who (or what) we’re supposed to be listening to.
With that approach to sound, it’s easy to understand why Altman would be drawn to filming a popular radio show. PHC’s ensemble nature is another attraction. Altman adores the art of acting; he hovers over the shoulder of his performers by utilizing zoom lenses and multiple digital cameras to follow them into every nook and cranny on the set, even if he’s a dozen yards away. This forces actors to remain in character, and in this way Altman captures their spontaneous moments—the gaffes and frustrations and flashes of brilliance, whether accidental or deliberate.
In 1992’s The Player, he takes us into a restaurant where Burt Reynolds (playing himself) and a friend chat in the foreground, while the “real” action takes place a good twenty feet behind, at a table with Tim Robbins (playing the fictional Griffin Mill). We can hear and see what’s going on in both places, not to mention the conversations elsewhere in the restaurant.
Almost all of Altman’s movies baffle with this kind of technical innovation. His painting metaphor—the film as picture—is apt: Watching his films, the feeling is not that this is documentary, or a typical Hollywood dynamic in which good guys and bad struggle toward the inevitable climax, but rather a moment in life, captured in sound and light in the way that a painting can capture a moment in oil and light. When we go to a restaurant or a ballet, we are inundated with sights and sounds, and naturally take away more than just the singular experience of food or dance.
The moments Altman captures are often as ugly as they are beautiful, with performers opening up like a flower, singing or dancing before moving backstage and flipping someone off. His gallery is made up of these moments, as portrayed in the old West (McCabe), in seventies Nashville (Nashville), in a thirties jazz club (Kansas City), and, coming up, a contemporary weekly radio show. Spatially, Altman’s films eschew large, open settings, retreating instead to the confines of dressing rooms, recording studios, domestic interiors. There are no expansive valleys in McCabe, but rather everything takes place in the cramped saloons, tents, and whorehouses in the town of Presbyterian Church, which is itself wedged into a high mountain gorge. Prairie will be no different, with its cozy set ensconced within the Fitzgerald Theater, both on and off stage.
In all, the nature and circumstances surrounding Prairie Home seem perfectly suited to Altman’s oeuvre. According to the film’s producer Joshua Astrachan, about three years ago Altman and Keillor met through a mutual lawyer friend, hit it off, and began to discuss the possibility of working together. Altman’s wife Kathryn was a fan of Prairie Home, and after he met the man behind it, the thought of filming this little subculture began to intrigue him.
One can see why: As the last of the great radio shows, Prairie Home is a relic and a haven for dreamers, whether they’re performers or listeners. But its dark side suits Altman as well. Though I haven’t read Keillor’s novels (it’s been said that his listeners and his readers are two quite separate audiences), friends have been surprised by the edginess of their prose and the not-so-subtle desire of their author to shake things up in Lake Wobegon. The characters are looking back on wasted lives, dull marriages, probable affairs.
At first, Keillor was working on a screenplay about Lake Wobegon, but it was Altman who persuaded him to shift the focus from the fictional hamlet to the machinations behind the curtains at the radio show, thus drawing the story into the enclosed setting and focusing on the performers. And perhaps in Keillor’s case, this change—offering a glimpse of fictional characters playing fictional characters, mingling with the actual show’s regulars—allowed him to reveal to his fans the darker side of the show we love.
Robert Altman is eighty years old, a Midwesterner, and a World War II veteran who would probably cringe at being called one of the Greatest Generation. After a number of minor projects (a James Dean documentary, a sci-fi flick, a twelve-year stint directing TV shows, and a couple features that flopped), he was chosen—and this would be the last time he would ever be chosen—to direct M.A.S.H. The swinging sixties, the anti-war sentiment, and a hunger for things new made M.A.S.H. his most commercially successful film. It gave him the power and the confidence to demand complete control over the content of his work in ways that few other directors can.
Altman has since become known as one of the last of the Hollywood mavericks. At various times, he has talked openly about his penchants for booze, pot, and gambling; he can be cantankerous with screenwriters and anyone else involved in a film—except for actors, whom he indulges shamelessly; and he seems delighted when his esoteric, utterly personal films alienate audiences and studio heads alike.
Actors flock to Altman because he is famous for giving them free rein to interpret their characters, while he watches with few comments or suggestions. This can be heaven for performers used to being treated as meat, but a pain to the viewer who has to watch Lily Tomlin’s brilliance mingle with Keith Carradine’s overcooked ham (in Nashville), Stephen Fry’s juvenile slapstick amongst a well-oiled ensemble machine (in Gosford Park); or Harry Belafonte’s jazzy screed to a vacuous Dermot Mulroney (in Kansas City).
Keillor, on the other hand, has never tasted such freedom. Usually he is, in his own words, handcuffed by “the restrictions of good taste.” Giving himself over to Altman, Keillor suddenly becomes both a limitless performer and a screenwriter who expects—working with this director—that spontaneity is the rule, damn the written word.
Now that the film’s in the can, rumors abound that Keillor might soon draw the curtains permanently on his radio show; it is thirty years old, and the film concerns the last broadcast of a radio show after the same. Considering Keillor’s growing pessimism, as interviews and his own fiction can attest, this could be an ideal occasion. What better swan song than a collaboration with one of the greatest directors in American cinema?