Friday, June 09, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion-- A Eulogy to Things Dying from the Heartland

With an all star cast (Kevin Kline, Meryl Strep, Lilly Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Masden Lindsey Lohan, John C. Reily, Tommy Lee Jones etc.), and the ole boy himself, Garrison Keillor, and a reenactment of an episode of the Prairie Home Companion in the offing, the heavy odds would be on this being a lot of fun. And indeed it is. Just watching Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin play country singing sisters, and Kevin Kline as Guy Noir the bumbling security guard was worth the price of admission. It is too bad the moguls have decided on only a limited release for this movie.

What you didn't figure on in this movie was a long meditation of death. But in fact that is precisely what you get in this movie. Virginia Masden plays quite literally the angel of death. But had she come to help ring down the curtain on the Prairie Home Companion?

The plot is quite simple-- the Fitzgerald theater in St. Paul is about to be imploded, putting an end to the venue for the long running radio show. It has been bought by a born again Texas axe man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who thinks the show needs to end and another parking lot should be put up (you can sing the chorus of Joni Mitchell's classic 'Big Yellow Taxi' here--- "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot...')

So it is no surprise that the cast, and Garrison are in a melancholy and reflective mood. Nevertheless they must make merry, and do so by singing everything from bluegrass, to country, to spirituals to old Gospel classics, to western cowboy songs. Indeed most of the movie involves singing, and we discover that most of these big name stars can sing, and so can Keillor as well, who plays himself of course. For somewhat under two hours we watch them perform, follow the behind the scenes high jinks, and generally have a good time.

Keillor, in good Lake Wobegon fashion reminds us of how Keillor sees the nature of the upper midwest. People expect it to be cold, they expect death, and if joy breaks out for too long they feel like something is wrong and this too will pass. In short they range from Stoics to fatalists to glass is half empty folks, and even the young, portrayed by Lindsey Lohan are busy writing poems about suicide and death.

Yet they enjoy fiddling as Lake Woebegon freezes, and if this is a death spiral dance, it sure is entertaining to watch. "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow..." seems to be the theme here. It is interesting though that when a cast member actually dies back stage during the show, Keillor insists the show must go on, and he refuses to do a live eulogy to ole Claude Akers the cowboy singer. It seems that some cope with death by avoidance of the subject, others by obsessing about it.

There is a bit of baudy humor in this movie served up by Harrelson and Reilly (e.g.--- "News bulletin, a large shipment of Viagra has been stolen"; Harrelson asks--- 'Who do they suspect?' Answer--- "hardened criminals!") so you probably don't want to take the kids to this one, but there are many good laughs in the movie, even as death is being mused on.

What one can learn from this movie is a good deal about the heartland of America, far from beautiful weather, and gorgeous oceans. The movie has all the charm of an earlier era when people actually mainly listened to the live radio shows, rather than turning on XM radio or shock jock radio talk shows. What one learns immediately is that we have mostly lost the art of musing over a leisurely hour about topics like death--- and of course Grandma's Powdermilk biscuits, interspersed with some corny jokes.

In fact the show's humor reminded me of a fellow Charlottean's humorous comic strip--- Kudzu. In it there is a character named the Rev. Will B. Dunn. In one strip he is speaking to the church's ladies circle, and he says "Personally I have no problems with women and their roles in the church." And then patting his paunch he adds-- "its women and their biscuits that I have problems with." You catch my drift....

I really loved this movie on so many levels, and it made me wistful for a time when we took time to really listen for an hour to others singing from the heart, speaking with wit, tongue firmly in cheek, and of course doing the American thing-- advertising everything on the planet from biscuits to laxatives.

It reminded me of why country music really does speak to so many people in the heartland-- they are living those songs, and they are painfully true, whether you are singing "Red River Valley" or Frankie and Johnny" or "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling". This is the music that speaks to everyday life, and gives it a spiritual or humorous twist, with a little moralizing thrown in for good measure. I can recommend this movie for adults, but be prepared to smile and grin and tap your toes. If you're too Stoic for that, then you belong at Lake Woebegon.


RC said...

What a great post...I didn't expect that I would read the whole thing b/c i don't like to read too much plot-wise about movies before I see them, but your post grabbed me.

I haven't been too sure if I'd want to see this film b/c well...frankly, I thought it looked interesting, but not worth the admission...but, my interest is piqued and it sounds like it really offers up some interesting things to ponder.

I wonder if Robert Altman is speaking some through this project himself, he's getting older in age, and perhaps feels by-passed by life...who knows?

Once again, thank you so much for this post.

--RC of

Cb said...

Thank you for the review! I do have to say, however, that one of the things that makes XM great for this 2+ hour a day commuter is Radio Classics, radio programs from "the Golden Age" such as the Lone Ranger and The Shadow, and Sonic Theater which has modern radio theater (mostly from Canada; I wish they would import from the BBC).

Thanks again!


Ben Witherington said...

Shows how much I know about XM radio! When I have listened to it in other friends cars its always been endless tunes-- thanks for the correction.


Marc Axelrod said...

My wife Jeanne listens to Prairie Home Companion every week, and she is really wanting to see this movie. We had just read in USA Today that it was basically for fans only due to its rambling nature, but that wont stop us. Jeanne will be delighted to read your review.

I find the radio show to be a bore, but I will go to the movie like the dutiful husband that I am. This week, we are on vacation in Door County, so we will have to go down to Sturgeon Bay to find a theatre I suppose.


brian said...

I gather from your posting that you are not a regular listener to A Prairie Home Companion. I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoyed the movie and/or find Keillor's writing to be funny. Most NPR stations carry it on Saturday evenings, with a rebroadcast sometime Sunday.
Also, GK tours extensively, and is worth seeing live. He came to a nearby city for a show with only himself and his Hopeful Gospel Quartet. The music was the best of that genre that I have ever experienced, and his 45 minute riff on Lake Wobegon provoked almost unremitting side-aching laughter.
People seem to either love him or don't get him at all (Napoleon Dynamite, anyone?) But if you do, he is a treasure.

DLW said...

You might like my take on the film, I focus more on the extent that the film reflects on death and how people from a Christian background that they've come to reject reflect on that past.

I think there are hints of universalism in the movie, as the angel is there to take both Claude Akers and Tommy Lee Jone's character.

I disagree that Keillor didn't express his grief over Akers, he jusst did it in a subdued way, just like Mery and Lilly's characters did in dedicating a song to their mother but singing it for Akers.


CV said...

someone else's take on the film:

"Yesterday on Fresh Air Edelstein reviewed Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion, loosely based on Garrison Keillor's weekly radio show. In attempting to describe the inhabitants of Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, Edelstein described Lutherans as a spiritually haunted people "who believe that you're guilty until proven innocent, which is pretty much never."

I had a good chuckle over this in the car on my way home from work. Not because Edelstein is wrong, mind you. He's much closer to the truth than the scandalized fundagelicals who think that Lutherans (and I'm sure some of us more than others) are decadent antinomians blithely sinning our way to hell in a handbasket. No; Edelstein got it righter. But he just didn't go far enough into the grounding of Lutheran theology.

Sometimes I think that Keillor himself, a late-in-life Episcolutheran, has an occasional tendency to project a bit of his own fundamentalist background onto the Lutheran citizens of Lake Wobegon. But on his good days I think he would explain to Edelstein that Lutherans are not people wallowing in guilt, but simply people who know who they are; sinners and saints at once; simul iustus et peccator. "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better and better" isn't a tenet of Lutheran theology. Our understanding of the Christian condition comes closer to Julian of Norwich's wonderful illustration of a servant teetering under a heavy burden en route to the master, and every so often falling into the ditch along the road. We acknowledge that we're broken people, living in a broken world. When we confess our sins in our worship services, it isn't for the benefit of newbies among us who haven't yet achieved spiritual enlightenment, but for ourselves, all of us, because we know we haven't gotten it right, either in the things we've done or the things we've failed to do

Which is the bad news. But the good news is that God loves us -- not for who we are but for who God is -- and forgives us, and invites us to follow Christ boldly into the future. Luther used the term "boldly" because we simply don't always know what way is the right way; the situations in which we find ourselves don't always lend themselves to a cut-and-dried rightness or wrongness, contrary to the thin-lipped, nit-picking, bean-counting Phariseeism of so much of the religious world. We just don't know; all we know is that Christ tells us to follow him, so we do, as best we can in this world. And when we stumble along the way, we know that Christ can pick us back up and set us on the road again. That's how it works; that's how it goes with us.

Keillor's motto for Lake Wobegonians is We Are Who We Are. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Both. And I wish Ken Edelstein knew that. "

From another prespective, of course.

jimbo said...

I loved the movie. Of course I love the radio show as well. I thought they did a great service to the show. I just feel sorry, for the people who watch it, and do not understand the radio show. There is so much to enjoy.

I am ready for the next one.

As you said, next time need a better marketing group. I had to drive all the way across Austin to see it.

jimbo said...


I love the radio show, and loved the movie. Just wish they would use a different distribution group, next time. I had to drive all the way across town.