Before I speak critically about the film version of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” I should note that I’ve had limited interaction with it and its creator. For example, my first awareness of Keillor as a person was a throwaway reference to him on the episode of “The Simpsons” in which Marge goes on a “Thelma and Louise”-style road trip with her neighbor, Ruth Powers. Near the beginning of this episode, the family is watching PBS and listening to a monologue by a soft-spoken, bespectacled man.
The man intones: “Well, sir, it has been an uneventful week in Badger Falls, where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked, and the children are pink-cheeked and robust.” The studio audience erupts into laughter, but the Simpson family is puzzled. “What the hell is so funny?” Homer asks angrily. The man on the TV continues: “At the Apple Biscuit café — where the smiles are free, don’t you know — Sven Inqvist studied the menu, then finally ordered the same thing he has every day.” Again, the audience laughs. Confused, Bart offers, “Maybe it’s the TV.” Homer stomps over to the box and hits it a few times. “Stupid TV. Be more funny!”
The episode first aired on November 5, 1993. I was eleven years old. I had no idea who Garrison Keillor was, and the bit always puzzled me — somewhat in the manner the faux-Keillor puzzled the Simpson family — until the advent of the internet finally allowed me to look up exactly what was being mocked. At the time, Keillor had been broadcasting “A Prairie Home Companion” for nearly twenty years.
With that in mind, I sat through a showing of the filmic “A Prairie Home Companion” this weekend, partly out of my respect for director Robert Altman but mostly just because my curiosity at how such a seemingly cheesy slice of Americana like “APHC” could have possibly lasted as long as it has. To anyone casually watching the movie, Keillor’s baby would seem just that: hokey — and charming only in the sense of a time capsule that reveals what was common place a lifetime ago but now is pleasantly obsolete and familiarly dysfunctional.
But there’s something else here, a Lynchian boogeyman hiding in the shadows of this Country Bear Jamboree. It’s very unsettling and almost nightmarish when contrasted to the movie’s initially saccharine attitude. I’m glad it’s there, because without it I wouldn’t have understood what such a great cast would be doing hamming it up in a movie like this. It’s bothering me and this film wouldn’t have warranted this post otherwise.
“APHC” takes some liberties from the source material, of course. While Garrison Keillor indeed hosts a radio show that he tapes in front of a live studio audience, the performers in the movie are a mix of ones from real-life and celebrities posing as their castmates. Furthermore, the premise of the film is that the show featured in it — a single performance which encompasses the whole length of the movie, more or less — is the final one. A rich businessman has bought the theater and will shortly demolish it, thusly ending “APHC” forever.
Filmed in quasi-real time, “APHC” moves at a quick pace, as the various performers and backstage workers scuttle around the theater, preparing for whichever act is scheduled next. People chatter — sometimes to the point of making the dialogue hard to understand — but we get some insight into who these characters are. Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) is the dimmer half of a two-sister country-gospel duet that once was a family act. Yolanda’s sullen daughter Lola (LiLo) writes suicidal poetry. She looks twenty but acts like a fifteen-year-old. The two cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) are rough around the edges, but likeable, exactly like you’d expect them to be. Oh, and Maya Rudolph is there, too, looking like her real-life pregnancy made work on the set unbearable.
But that’s really all we get as far as character development. A lot of the main cast — Lily Tomlin and Kevin Kline in particular — don’t really get to change their characters any over the course of the film. Even worse, those who have the ability to give a commanding performance seem purposely muted. Tomlin, notably, is better known as a comedienne than anything else, so one must wonder what tempted Altman and Keillor to have her only singing and spouting some of the less funny lines. Why should poor LiLo, already busy enough doing an earnest impression of what she thinks a disaffected, creative type might be like, play the only character to undergo any kind of spiritual change? And why cast Maya Rudolph — an adept comedienne with a strong singing voice — as Molly, the harried, pregnant stage manager, standing sullenly and with nary a joke or jingle to deliver?
The film, which I suppose is a musical comedy, works well, but only if your idea of good music and comedy falls along the same lines as that of your older, Southerner, religiouser grandparents, who still tell the same jokes people used to make the Depression seem a little less depressing. (Good jokes were hard to come by in that economy, you see. Most people buried all the good jokes in coffee cans in the back yard.) To get into what the characters are into, a viewer must peel back seven decades of cynicism and buy into the fact that entertainment used to mean something different than what it means today — most necessarily during the song “Bad Jokes,” which Harrelson and Reilly’s characters sing in a way that made me cringe in the theater.
So superficially, the movie is a green apple lollipop — sweet but insubstantial, attempting something down-home but only achieving something that mocks it. But like I said before, there’s something awful hidden beneath all the “aw shucks” nostalgia. Much in the way David Lynch likes to contrast American kitsch against the most horrendous, unseen evils and the basest instincts of the human mind, Keillor very slyly slips the vilest of black humor into “APHC.” For example, Virginia Madsen plays a character listed in the credits as “The Dangerous Woman.” In a snow-white trench coat, she walks around the backstage area of the film’s setting like some kind of beautiful zombie. Kevin Kline — whose pratfalls and brain-dead delivery are more embarrassing than anything — plays Guy Noir, the irritatingly named gumshoe who acts as security for the show. The two play this cat-and-mouse game through the first half of the movie, with him suspecting her of being some femme fatale and her easily eluding him and speaking to the rest of the backstage crew as if she had no understanding of how humans relate.
In the absolute best scene in the film, the Dangerous Woman corners Keillor and explains that she is, in fact, Asphodel, the Angel of Death. She was once human, but died in an automobile accident while listening to Keillor’s show decades ago when a joke about penguins sent her into hysterics and her car flipping into a ditch. The angel, whose memory of her human existence seems only partly intact, asks Keillor to remind her what the joke was. The joke, as Keillor recalls it, goes like this:
So two penguins are on an iceberg and one says to the other, “Did you know it looks like you’re wearing a tuxedo?” To this the other penguin responds “What makes you think I’m not?”
Madsen’s character is not impressed. As the punch line registers in her head, she replies to it with, simply, “That’s not funny.” Keillor admits it’s not, and then the angel goes about her business, just a little resentful that such a lame joke caused her to die. The scene is strange, awkwardly paced, and slightly cavalier in the manner it addresses death. It struck me as funny for all the reasons the rest of the movie wasn’t. And I loved it. For me, this scene turned the movie on its head and sent it going in a very different direction than it was headed before.
Asphodel eventually embraces Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones), an aged PHC performer. Visibly stricken by Asphodel’s touch, Akers dies alone in his dressing room shortly thereafter. The death upsets the cast as news of it spreads from one performer to the other, but Keillor seems oddly unmoved. Streep’s character begs him to give a eulogy at the close of the show, but as Keillor has previously refused to discuss the show’s imminent end before the studio audience, he also declines to speak about this longtime performer’s passing.
In the film’s final scenes, Kline’s character devises a plan to save “APHC.” Knowing that his lady in the white trench coat is both the Angel of Death and a fan of the long-running show, he asks her to speak with The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), the studio suit responsible for the theater’s demolition. She does, and advises him of an alternate route out of town. We see him pulling away in his limo, with Asphodel riding invisibly beside him. Guy Noir tells us in a voiceover that The Axeman does in fact die. Nonetheless, the corporation he represents still destroys the theater and “APHC” ends forever. Despite the cast’s collective wishes and efforts — even the orchestrated death of a business-driven but ostensibly innocent man — the beloved Minnesota fixture ends.
The film closes with a scene at a diner — apparently a famous St. Paul landmark — where we see that the woman who had previously worked as a backstage make-up artist is now a waitress. Keillor, Tomlin, Streep and Kline are seated at a booth, discussing the possibility of a reunion tour. Various unimportant matters are discussed. But then the camera reveals that Madsen’s character — still dressed in white — is watching the former cast mates from outside. In her eerily serene state once again, she strolls to the front door and opens it. She pauses for a moment — and the four actors seated at the booth notice her, presumably recognizing her — and then she walks toward them. The last shot of the movie is the breast of her white trench coat gliding toward the camera, first whiting out the frame then quickly blacking it out.
It’s contrast that would make Lynch a very happy audience member. Black and white, life and death, a supernatural being descending upon four jovial, unsuspecting yokels. I can only imagine that Keillor wrote this ending to underscore the darker themes that permeate his work — themes that also account for odd plot points like Keillor and Yolanda’s apparently aborted relationship or that the absentee father of Molly’s baby may be someone from the show. Sadness and misery lurk side-by-side with the sunny stage grins of “APHC,” and I think they do so in service of a very intentional function.
Seriously, would a man truly devote his life’s work to re-creating a bygone era of entertainment because he loved it? Or is he mocking it, if only a little bit? By extension, could one say that by mocking this depiction of America Keillor is also criticizing the people that made it? Why would anybody write the Angel of Death into a film in which he and his real-life friends and colleagues play themselves other than to remind them — and us — that death and destruction and loss and sadness are very much a part of the American existence, even when you’re playing a high-spirited country jam on stage before an adoring audience?
“Tonight’s show is sponsored by Beebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie.” This brand doesn’t exist, though Keillor has been shilling it for decades. Like Beebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie, I think the happy, idyllic — and, so far, endless — existence of “A Prairie Home Companion” hearkens back to a reality that honestly never existed. He’s tried to make it real for thirty-two years — and he’s always found an audience willing to believe it. But even when he’s trying his hardest, the dark side of it all seeps through.
I guess that’s what’s hiding in the shadows here. It’s another contrast — between what we want to be there and what really is.