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Film: Return of the Iconoclast

Robert Altman's long, singular career continues with the elegiac A Prairie Home Companion

By Jason Gargano · June 21st, 2006 · Movies
  Director Robert Altman contemplates his next move on the set of A Prairie Home Companion.
Picturehouse Films

Director Robert Altman contemplates his next move on the set of A Prairie Home Companion.

A Prairie Home Companion feels like the end -- and not just because it's set amid the fictional final taping of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio variety show. A sense of loss pervades the picture, as if a part of our cultural fabric is unraveling before our eyes.

Director Robert Altman's trademark cynicism has been trumped by graceful nostalgia, a longing for a time when subtlety had a chance.

"The film is basically about death, whether it's individuals or an idea or the show," Altman says by phone from New York City. "Or the fact that death is there all the time."

The director's 81-year-old voice -- familiar to film buffs from the many DVD commentary tracks he's done over THE years, a contemporary revelation that has allowed deeply intimate access not previously known -- is faint but warm, the sound of a man who's lived a life. And what a life. Over the course of 35 (or so) feature films and numerous television assignments -- everything from Bonanza to Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- Altman has been honing his singular, ceaselessly playful vision.

His career as we know it bloomed with 1970's M*A*S*H (at age 45!), a film that introduced many of his rules-busting techniques: fuzzy, overlapping dialogue delivered in so lifelike a manner that one has trouble spotting the seams and an intuitive visual style rife with zooms, pans and languid shots that drift along drunk on the possibility that anything can happen at any moment. Atmosphere and character rule, often to the detriment of conventional narrative and audience expectation.

Altman has put his spin on almost every genre imaginable, which makes each new project tougher to keep fresh. So why A Prairie Home Companion?

"It's the same reason I was interested in making Nashville or 3 Women or M*A*S*H or any of those things," he says. "It's just something that occurred.

It came up as a suggestion and I said, 'Oh, yeah, that's good. Let's do it.' They're all caprice. I don't have any big agenda, political or otherwise."

Preoccupation with death aside, A Prairie Home Companion is also about the relevance of art -- or a certain kind of art, anyway -- in a culture that perpetually chases a faster, more visceral fix. Keillor, who provides the script and plays himself, and Altman are an apt pairing. They both possess a droll, reassuring presence, and both employ techniques that are rapidly receding from view.

"He's a genius," Altman says of Keillor. "He's like Will Rogers was."

Yet in usually open-minded fashion, Altman isn't averse to trying new things. Proof? He shot A Prairie Home Companion in high definition video.

"It was very organic," he says. "I shot this with several cameras in 21 or 22 days. What we did was primarily put on the show (essentially a taping of a typical A Prairie Home Companion radio broadcast) and some of our takes were 15 minutes long with four or five cameras, and then we were finished with it. It's cheaper for a film like this. I have more control.

"There's no reason to put this on film. HD is better, really. If I were shooting a film that had many different locations and we had to transport cameras and things around and I was shooting a lot of vistas, I would use film. It would be truer to that. But we were interior night all the time, so there was just no reason for it."

Like so many Altman efforts, A Prairie Home Companion features a large ensemble cast of capable actors. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are strangely touching as a rueful pair of singing sisters, and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson seem as if they've been together forever as the engaging Lefty and Dusty, an acoustic-guitar-wielding cowboy duo who revel in off-color jokes.

Slightly less effective are Kevin Kline as stock Companion character Guy Noir and Virginia Madsen as a mysterious angel in white. (Their characters seem less authentic in comparison, especially when interacting with Keillor and his cast of real-life companions interspersed amid the "real" actors.) Tommy Lee Jones briefly shows up as a corporate bigwig who is canceling Keillor's show in favor of a "less archaic format."

And then there's Lindsay Lohan as Streep's death-obsessed daughter, a character the hype-stricken actress ably inhabits, most notably during her oddly compelling singing scenes.

Earnest and convincingly rendered, the A Prairie Home Companion's many performance sequences (lovingly, languidly shot by talented Director of Photography Ed Lachman) carry the film past its more narcotic moments, yielding a moving elegy of a nearly extinct era.

"The actors are primarily responsible for all these films, and they're the ones who really interpret the art of it," says Altman, a notoriously actor-friendly director. "I leave everyone alone and let them do their thing. I force them to do their thing. I try to make it as comfortable for them as possible."

But that doesn't mean there aren't boundaries. While he's always maintained that scripts are just loose sketches amid his limitless canvas, Altman does admit to reining in scenes on occasion.

"Many of them are improvisational and many of them are quite to the letter," he says. "It depends on what kind of painting you're making."

This particular painting would seem to have a strong chance to garner an audience, something that's not always been the case for a director who often revels in subversion.

"You know, the film of mine that had the least audience was McCabe and Mrs. Miller," he says, as I get flustered at the mention of a neglected classic that remains as mysterious and romantic as the day it was released in 1971. "Well, that was a big, big failure when it came out. And Nashville did not sell a lot of tickets. Thanks to DVD replays and tape and all that, people can see my older films now, and most of them have endured, which pleases me to no end.

"Everything I do, as I finish it, I think, 'God, everybody's gonna love this picture. It's going to have the largest audience of all time and all the critics are going to be wonderful.' I'm just in seventh heaven. And then the truth comes around, and I find out that people are apathetic about it or bored by it or don't get it."

Among those who "get it" are his fellow filmmakers. Everyone from his '70s contemporaries to young directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia) have been influenced by his iconoclastic nature, his endless search to create something unique in a profession that rarely does.

"He was my insurance standby," Altman says of Anderson. "He was on the set all the time. His wife, Maya Rudolph, was in the film, so it made it easy for him to be there, and I have to have somebody on the film to take over in case I croak."

Which brings us back to the end. While Altman is currently in the midst of casting his next endeavor -- Hands on a Hard Body, a fictional version of a contest in which several Texans see who can keep their hands on a truck the longest -- does he see a time when his long cinematic journey will come to a close?

"Oh, I don't know," he says. "How long do you think I'll live?" ©



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