A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-0 ; L – 3 ; S-4 (sexual humor)/N – 0; Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 Again one in human form touched me and strengthened me. He said, ‘Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!’ When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, ‘Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.’ Daniel 10:18-19

A Prairie Home Companion

I would never have thought of joining director Robert Altman with Garrison Keillor. The director purveys in his films a darker vision of life, whereas Keillor’s homespun humor is pervaded with the optimism so typical of Midwesterners. However, on closer inspection much of the humor of the radio series does deal with human shortcomings and the great gap between aspirations and reality, so the pairing of these two great artists is not such a stretch after all. Certainly the outcome of their collaboration has produced the “feel good” movie of the summer season (if we leave out the ambiguous ending).

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the presence of the white trench coated figure played by Virginia Madsen, listed in the credits as Dangerous Woman, yet soon revealed as an angel who comes to bring comfort and to escort a person out of this world. Guy Noir, brilliantly played by Kevin Kline, first spots her, his proverbially powers to describe an attractive “dame” operating at full blast, so lovely a spectre is she. The angel wanders through the set, in and out of the house set that serves as the backdrop for the show, until she at last focuses her attention upon the man she has been sent to escort out of this life, veteran singer and lover Chuck Akers (L. Q. Jones). Later she will also sit in the V.I.P. box with The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), so called because he heads a Texas conglomerate that has bought up the radio station and the Fitzgerald Theater and intends to close down the radio show and tear down the theater to make way for a parking lot.

Only a few of the cast and crew know that this Saturday night performance will be the last. For some reason G.K. (Garrison Keillor), the show’s genial founder and host prefers neither to announce the closing of the show either to his staff or to the audience that fills the theater. His stage manager urges him several times to say something on the air, but G.K. turns her down, as well as the pleas of the members of his top singing act, sisters Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep)

Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin). And so the show goes on in the familiar way that the real life program’s many fans enjoy. There are the weathered cowpokes Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly Rusty), one of whose songs is so ribald that it alone must have earned the show its PG-13 rating. Most of the regular singers and the wonderful sound effects man Tom Keith are on hand, and of course there are those bizarre commercials for such products as Powdermilk Biscuits. The fictional show within a show is every bit as delightful as those that have been issuing forth over NPR for the past 25 or so years—indeed, I found myself wanting it to continue longer, especially hoping that it would include the News From Lake Woe-Begone.

Garrison Keillor himself wrote the script, its conclusion matching well the sentiment that Robert Altman brings to his films. This is a film filled with humor but also permeated by a keen sense of mortality that the author of Ecclesiastes would have appreciated. Virginia Madsen’s role of the angel will remind veteran film lovers of that of Hope Lang in Bob Fosse’s great film All That Jazz, a film interestingly enough also about show business, and also one in which the theme of mortality and death are a major factor. Even the subplot of the relationship between Yolanda Johnson and her daughter Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan) is permeated with the reality of death as mother and sister reflect on how they are the last two of a family gospel singing act that included their mother and other sisters, now long gone. This is a film to make one laugh while watching and then to reflect quietly on some of its themes in the hours and days that follow.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How well do you think the radio show translates over to the screen? What do you think of having Guy Noir serve as narrator? Note the many wonderful bits of physical humor carried off so well by Kevin Kline: what do they reveal about his competence as a detective? How is his character (on the radio show and in the film) an example of the Chaplinesque figure of a man whose self-image does not match his actual ability?

2) What are some of the delightful scenes in which G.K.’s love of storytelling are shown? How does the stage manager Molly (she’s the pregnant one played by Maya Rudolph) often serve as G.K.’s organize and link to reality?

3) Compare the Johnson sisters with Yolanda’s daughter Lola? What is the subject of Lola’s poetry? How is she, at least temporarily, brought out of her funk? Compare her ultimate choice of a profession with what her mother and aunt hope to do at the end of the film? How are the latter two the eternal optimists?

4) What do you think of the role of The Dangerous Woman/Angel? Compare this depiction of an angel to those in such films as It’s A Wonderful Life; Michael; City of angels; Wings of Desire; A Preacher’s Wife—and with the way in which angels are depicted in Scripture.

5) How does Tommy Lee Jones’ The Axeman fit in well with the popular view of conglomerate corporations as soulless entities? What does he seem to value? Is he alive to any of the sentiment of the show’s participants?

6) What does the show represent—a nostalgia for a mythic past when human relationships and faith in God were paramount, or—? How can the story of the Johnson sisters be seen as an extension of what the radio show represents? Why does Lola seem not to connect with Her mother and aunt’s story? How is she perhaps more like The Axeman than them?

7) What did you think of the conclusion of the film? Would you have liked to have things more tied up, or—?

A Prairie Home Companion Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-0 ; L – 3 ; S-4 (sexual humor)/N – 0; Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Again one in human form touched me and strengthened me. He said, ‘Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!’ When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, ‘Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.’ Daniel 10:18-19

I would never have thought of joining director Robert Altman with Garrison Keillor. The director purveys in his films a darker vision of life, whereas Keillor’s homespun humor is pervaded with the optimism so typical of Midwesterners. However, on closer inspection much of the humor of the radio series does deal with human shortcomings and the great gap between aspirations and reality, so the pairing of these two great artists is not such a stretch after all. Certainly the outcome of their collaboration has produced the “feel good” movie of the summer season (if we leave out the ambiguous ending).

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the presence of the white trench coated figure played by Virginia Madsen, listed in the credits as Dangerous Woman, yet soon revealed as an angel who comes to bring comfort and to escort a person out of this world. Guy Noir, brilliantly played by Kevin Kline, first spots her, his proverbially powers to describe an attractive “dame” operating at full blast, so lovely a spectre is she. The angel wanders through the set, in and out of the house set that serves as the backdrop for the show, until she at last focuses her attention upon the man she has been sent to escort out of this life, veteran singer and lover Chuck Akers (L. Q. Jones). Later she will also sit in the V.I.P. box with The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), so called because he heads a Texas conglomerate that has bought up the radio station and the Fitzgerald Theater and intends to close down the radio show and tear down the theater to make way for a parking lot.

Only a few of the cast and crew know that this Saturday night performance will be the last. For some reason G.K. (Garrison Keillor), the show’s genial founder and host prefers neither to announce the closing of the show either to his staff or to the audience that fills the theater. His stage manager urges him several times to say something on the air, but G.K. turns her down, as well as the pleas of the members of his top singing act, sisters Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep)

Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin). And so the show goes on in the familiar way that the real life program’s many fans enjoy. There are the weathered cowpokes Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly Rusty), one of whose songs is so ribald that it alone must have earned the show its PG-13 rating. Most of the regular singers and the wonderful sound effects man Tom Keith are on hand, and of course there are those bizarre commercials for such products as Powdermilk Biscuits. The fictional show within a show is every bit as delightful as those that have been issuing forth over NPR for the past 25 or so years—indeed, I found myself wanting it to continue longer, especially hoping that it would include the News From Lake Woe-Begone.

Garrison Keillor himself wrote the script, its conclusion matching well the sentiment that Robert Altman brings to his films. This is a film filled with humor but also permeated by a keen sense of mortality that the author of Ecclesiastes would have appreciated. Virginia Madsen’s role of the angel will remind veteran film lovers of that of Hope Lang in Bob Fosse’s great film All That Jazz, a film interestingly enough also about show business, and also one in which the theme of mortality and death are a major factor. Even the subplot of the relationship between Yolanda Johnson and her daughter Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan) is permeated with the reality of death as mother and sister reflect on how they are the last two of a family gospel singing act that included their mother and other sisters, now long gone. This is a film to make one laugh while watching and then to reflect quietly on some of its themes in the hours and days that follow.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How well do you think the radio show translates over to the screen? What do you think of having Guy Noir serve as narrator? Note the many wonderful bits of physical humor carried off so well by Kevin Kline: what do they reveal about his competence as a detective? How is his character (on the radio show and in the film) an example of the Chaplinesque figure of a man whose self-image does not match his actual ability?

2) What are some of the delightful scenes in which G.K.’s love of storytelling are shown? How does the stage manager Molly (she’s the pregnant one played by Maya Rudolph) often serve as G.K.’s organize and link to reality?

3) Compare the Johnson sisters with Yolanda’s daughter Lola? What is the subject of Lola’s poetry? How is she, at least temporarily, brought out of her funk? Compare her ultimate choice of a profession with what her mother and aunt hope to do at the end of the film? How are the latter two the eternal optimists?

4) What do you think of the role of The Dangerous Woman/Angel? Compare this depiction of an angel to those in such films as It’s A Wonderful Life; Michael; City of angels; Wings of Desire; A Preacher’s Wife—and with the way in which angels are depicted in Scripture.

5) How does Tommy Lee Jones’ The Axeman fit in well with the popular view of conglomerate corporations as soulless entities? What does he seem to value? Is he alive to any of the sentiment of the show’s participants?

6) What does the show represent—a nostalgia for a mythic past when human relationships and faith in God were paramount, or—? How can the story of the Johnson sisters be seen as an extension of what the radio show represents? Why does Lola seem not to connect with Her mother and aunt’s story? How is she perhaps more like The Axeman than them?

7) What did you think of the conclusion of the film? Would you have liked to have things more tied up, or—?