Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion


May be it is what Edward Said called "late style." Robert Altman's last film is completely devoid of the casual cynicism and misanthropy that is characteristic of much of his work. Instead what we get is a warmhearted and generous elegy, a self-evidently valedictory statement (He died not long after it was made). It is easy to see Altman himself contemplating the Last Things as he made the film. What is remarkable is that there is not even a hint of bitterness or even a regret. There is absolutely no sentimentality or narcissistic self-boasting either. "I don't do eulogies," as the master of the ceremonies himself says. Also as another of the character says in the film when one old man, his colleague in the radio show, dies suddenly, "an old man's death is not a tragedy."

At another level it is also about another death - the death of local culture and community with these a mode of life which was based on shared beliefs, values and traditions which the titular community radio show stood for. In our world when everything is contingent on financial realities, shows like these have no reason to exist. In fact the only villain in the film is the businessman from Texas (called "the axeman") who has bought the theatre to convert it into a parking lot. Even for him there is no anger or bitterness though the film does make us expect his demise with anticipatory glee. Death itself is made alluring by embodying it in a figure of a traditional femme fatale in a white trench coat who stalks the backstage of the radio show looking for "victims."

Like in all Altman's films it is impossible to decide who is better than the other. It is as if all actors were part of some ecosystem, each nourishing the other. Even smaller roles get amplified the way Altman shoots the scenes. It is not hard to see why actors loved him so much. It is not an easy way to shoot, all those overlapping dialogues or spontaneous monologues, but with Altman it is as if he had shot it while sleepwalking on the set. It is also full of wonderful folk songs. In fact I had postponed watching it since I thought it was a backstage musical which would bore me but the songs with their own brand of folk wisdom and dry humour were all magnificent. One doesn't even need to be part of that culture (I am certainly very far from there).. there is something very universal in those songs which moved me and also made me smile. This is really a wonderful film. A fitting swansong for a great master artist.

14 comments:

puccinio said...

It's a great film and a great post that captures why the film is so great.

Except one quibble. Altman is NOT and never has been cynical or misanthropic to his characters in his films. He is critical definitely. But he still sees them as human beings. The point is he lives in an age where human beings are progressively regressing into stereotypes or caricatures.

For instance during the making of one of his movies had a cop give advice and Altman noted that the way he suggested to hold a gun was exactly how they do it in bad cop movies. And the cop said that cops learnt how to hold guns by copying movie cops!!!! So naturally Altman is disturbed by this. Like Altman even had compassion for Richard Nixon in ''Secret Honor'', the film with his shortest ever cast of one man.

''A Prairie Home Companion'' ranks alongside other swansongs like John Huston's ''The Dead'', Bunuel's ''Obscure Object of Desire'', Bergman's ''Saraband'' and actually the film it reminded me of is Hitchcock's last movie ''Family Plot''. A film which while minor is still interesting because of it's gentle and refreshing attitude to death. Hitchcock was Altman's boss once-upon-a-time. And ''A Prairie Home Companion'' also reminds me of Altman's favourite Hitchcock film ''Rear Window'' oddly enough.

Alok said...

Yes, calling him a misanthrope is definitely contentious. He is definitely much more critical of social institutions and ways of life which breed such thoughtlessnes and selfishness in human beings. For example in a film like The Player, it is the commercialized Hollywood system that is the target of his satire. Of course human beings are culpable too in so far as they let themselves bullied by the diktats of that system and not because there is something intrinsically evil in human nature. But having said that he is definitely no humanist either. There is something prickly about his temperament, kind of irritation and an obvious hostility to sentimentality of all kinds. That's why I felt this film was different. There was every reason to be bitter and critical but he doesn't go to those places.

Alok said...

also those are nice examples of "late" films. I haven't seen The Dead but have heard that Huston made it anticipating his own death too.

and Bergman's Saraband...God, he became even harsher and more unforgiving!! that is one tough film.

Puccinio said...

Altman is no tree-hugger which is essentially what 99% of all self-calling humanists are. Humanists or self-calling Humanists are among the most boring people on the planet.

And real humanists are always misunderstood. The most misunderstood being Jean Renoir who's passed nowadays as a serene saint-guy for having said in ''The Rules of the Game'', "everyone has his reasons", what people forget is that the full sentence is:

"The most terrible thing in the world is that everyone has his reasons."

Robert Altman a great fan of Renoir, his ''Gosford Park'' is a homage to the film featuring this quote obviously agrees.

As for ''The Dead'', John Huston didn't anticapate his own death while making it. He knew fully well that he was going to die anytime during production. He directed it with a oxygen tank, an IV on the set. He directed it on his deathbed.

Scary...

Even scarier is Nicholas Ray, whose final film, ''Lightning Over Water'', co-directed by Wim Wenders essentially records his last days, the act of his dying, on camera.

km said...

Altman's last film is completely devoid of the casual cynicism and misanthropy

Maybe that's because PHC is completely devoid of cynicism and misanthropy? (Though sometimes I find the radio show a little *too* devoid of cynicism and misanthropy :))

Alok said...

km: Actually I am not familiar with American radio at all. I had never even heard of its name before the film but this kind of shaggy-dog, spontaneous and good humoured feel-goodness I love very much...

the film is not just about the radio show, it is also about the *death* of the radio show... one could have been justifiably bitter and nasty (about the decline of community and regional culture and the role of philistine commercialism in hastening its demise) that is, if one were so inclined but yes that would havee been the same as betraying the spirit of the show.

Alok said...
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Puccinio said...

The fundamental theme of ''A Prairie Home Companion'' seems to me at least, that...death isn't a big deal. Like that radio show even if it survived would have eventually had to shut down in any case if only to be replaced by another radio show.

Like everything is temporary and eventually it'll go away, so the only thing you can really do is put on a great swansong.

That attitude is itself kind of revolutionary in that it's like getting rid of your ego. Like in this culture you want to save enough money that your "kids don't have to work" and whatnot assuming that would solve problems. This is just accepting that it's not that bad a thing that things-don't-last-forever.

It reminds me of something that Altman once said. He was critical of Hollywood's conservatism and he described the standard romantic plot and how audiences are supposed to assume that the couple will live happily-ever-after. He said that it could be they go home, have sex, make eyes at each other and then next week one of them kills the other. Death is the only end.

So you could say it sees death as the last chapter to an interesting book or something. And Altman's worth more than a hundred interesting books.

Alok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alok said...

puccinio: I totally agree... a self-proclaimed "humanist" filmmaker would bore the hell out of me...

Also agree with what you say about that famous quote... it is very simple but goes at the heart of the problem of moral relativism and so many horrors, political or otherwise, of our modern world when all crimes seem to have "rational" justifications. I actually saw La Bete Humaine only a couple of weeks back. I was surprised by how dark it was... it didn't look the kind of subject that would have interested Renoir and yet it feels so authentic, a masterpiece. Will try to write about in some detail later. as you point out Altman's style owes a lot to Renoir (specially of the Rules of the Game).. he was the Renoir of our time.

Alok said...

Oh looks like a "race condition" in the comment threads :)

That stoicism and bravely accepting what is inevitable is definitely the central mood the film evokes.

The more political reading makes sense only when you link it with Altman's rest of the career which is consistent in its critique of establishment and the dominant culture of shallowness, selfish individualism, which more or less defines the american identity. the kind of rural and small town americana seems to be a sort of flip side to that other American which incensed his so much.

Puccinio said...

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Also agree with what you say about that famous quote... it is very simple but goes at the heart of the problem of moral relativism and so many horrors, political or otherwise, of our modern world when all crimes seem to have "rational" justifications.
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And the attitude of Renoir's film, (it was released to an audience that in a year would happily collaborate with Nazis and toss Jews in camps) is critical of reasons. In fact a lot of critics who really know Renoir are critical of people just accepting "everyone has his reasons" so simplistically.

In fact, Renoir elsewhere said that "no one in that film was worth saving" and said that it was a kind of society, "that kills, kills, kills and would kill to keep living." Sounds like a laughing Buddha(to which Renoir physically bore a fair bit of resemblance) to you?

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I actually saw La Bete Humaine only a couple of weeks back. I was surprised by how dark it was... it didn't look the kind of subject that would have interested Renoir and yet it feels so authentic, a masterpiece.
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Well Renoir can be dark. He has a natural gift of comedy of course but that the chief gift is how that that comic sensibility melds with many other sensibilities like his films shift from comedy to tragedy and you can't tell when the comedy ends and the tragedy begins...like ''La Chienne'', the original of Lang's ''Scarlet Street'' differs from it's remake significantly in that the former film is not a crime film thriller but a hilarious black comedy which ends with a great proto-Beckettian gag. Of course it was sold then and now as a proto Film Noir but see that film and you'll see what I mean.

''La Bete Humaine'' actually resembles ''Toni'', a film which was a precursor to Neo-Realism, that's also a working-class tragedy set among migrant Italian workers in provincial France. The film also stems from his association with France's Popular Front that included ''Le Crime de M. Lange'' and of course, ''La Grande Illusion''.

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Altman's style owes a lot to Renoir (specially of the Rules of the Game).. he was the Renoir of our time. In fact Gosford Park was a sort of tribute to Rules...
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It was. Although it adopts the conventions of the detective film tropes that's native to british society. While Renoir worked from the tradition of Moliere and Beaumarchais, the French comedy.

Renoir's films of the late 30's and later ''The River''(the first Technicolor film shot wholly in India) are remarkable in that there's no plot or main character. Like ''La Grande Illusion'' doesn't have heroes or story. Each of the characters - Gabin, Fresnay, Stroheim, Dalio are fleshed out in detail and neither gets prominence over the other.

This is extended to ''La Regle du Jeu'' which is the ur-ensemble film, a film with absolutely no protagonists. And ''La Marseillaise'', kind of forgotten is also an ambitious attempt. It's a film about the French Revolution but no heroes, no love story and no romantics...on paper unthinkable for that most romantic of national revolutions.

Puccinio said...

Say, Alok why'd you delete some of your posts? I thought they were interesting.

Alok said...

there was some problem with commenting... that was just a duplicate comment.