Capital Celluloid 2021 — Day 70: Sun Jul 25

A Prairie Home Companion (Altman, 2006): BFI Southbank, NFT3, 12pm

This 35mm presentation, part of the Robert Altman season, is also being screened on July 31st. You can find all the details here.

Time Out review:
Like its predecessor, the virtually plot-free, therefore less audience-friendly ‘The Company’, this finds the late, great Robert Altman making the creation of a modest but marvellously subtle gem look near-effortless, such was his distinctive genius for turning a script with no particularly eventful story into a movie that’s consistently interesting, insightful, funny and touching. When I first caught it at a public screening in Berlin the morning after its premiere, the huge audience had a ball and gave it a deservedly lengthy ovation, no matter that it’s as deft, personal and downright unfashionable as anything he made during a notoriously idiosyncratic career.

This last time around, the author Garrison Keillor, as the film’s writer and one of its main characters (true to Altman tradition, there are around a dozen), imagines it’s the final night of his live radio variety show (whose title the film shares), with an engagingly motley assortment of performers entertaining both the listeners and the audience in a St Paul, Minnesota theatre one last time before an exploitative Texan (Tommy Lee Jones) – remember how Altman detested the ‘fool’ Bush – comes to close the place down, not to mention a seductively cornball populist culture long comfy therein. The narrative conceit of a mysterious, solicitous angel (Virginia Madsen) wandering the venue to listen in to people’s thoughts and feelings may be none too original – though she’s easily excused as a figment of the imagination of clumsy, self-aggrandising doorman Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) – but the film’s overall humanity and humour keep things moving along in an extremely pleasurable way.

Altman always said he put himself at the service of his cast, and here paid tribute – and gave fruitfully free rein to – Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as Yolanda and Rhonda, remaining members of a Carter-style music clan, and Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly as hilariously rivalrous singin’ cowpokes. Cue much joyful duetting and some intrigue concerning, on the one hand, Yolanda’s moody teen daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) and, on the other, a spunky ol’ timer (LQ Jones) – though that’s not much if you want big stories.

Not that the film’s as slight as Altman’s light touch and Ed Lachman’s fabulous camerawork make it look; it offers a moving yet wholly unsentimental take on ageing, death and the determination to continue doing what’s fun until the not-so-bitter end. Moreover, there are moments here no one else would ever be able, or try, to carry off; see Keillor end a long, casual conversation just in time to turn as a curtain raises. The timing’s so perfect, it feels real, exhilarating and nigh-on invisible all at the same time. Just lovely, and a magnificently enjoyable coda to an extraordinary career. The sad thing about Altman’s death – we’ve no more surprises in store; the consolation – he left us so much.

Geoff Andrew

Here (and above) is the trailer.

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