Sunday, June 11, 2006

Blast from the Past

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - In the nostalgic spirit that infuses Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion (***½ out of ****), allow me to reflect a bit on how my love affair with movies started.

How did it start? Gosh, I wish I could remember a specific moment. Well, I remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I used to have an affection for horror movies. (Maybe it went hand in hand with my obsession with the TV show The X-Files at the time.) In East Brunswick, there used to be a store called the Video Vault, and usually the first section I'd go to would be the horror section. Lined up on the video shelves were VHS boxes, almost all of them with forbidding images that couldn't help but excite my immature self subconsciously. And it seemed like every Friday-into-Saturday late night ABC would show some kind of horror film---often one of the network's old TV horror flicks from the '70s, but sometimes a real film, albeit censored and broken up into segments---that I would tape. (I remember there was one particularly cheesy one called Curse of the Black Widow which I suppose I'll always remember for the, I thought, effectively creepy moment in which we finally see a woman transform into a giant spider and terrorize her relatives.) My attraction to such freaky intrigue was heightened by the fact that my mother didn't really seem to approve of my taste in horror: whenever I'd try to get her to allow to me to rent a horror title, she'd usually ask me, "Do you really have to get this movie? Isn't there something else we could all watch?" That inevitably increased the lure.

Yeah, not necessarily a promising foundation on which to base an appreciation of film, in hindsight. For a while, I just couldn't get enough of slasher flicks---and not the artful slasher scares of John Carpenter's Halloween (which I technically still haven't seen in its original 2.35:1 widescreen format---important especially for Carpenter, who refuses to shoot in anything other than 2.35:1) or the extravagant visual imagination of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street(with Freddy Krueger still king of the Michael Myers-Jason Voorhees-Freddy Krueger horror-movie holy trinity, for my money), but the low-rent exploitative bloody sadism of the Friday the 13th flicks. Can you believe there used to be a time when I couldn't help but watch Kevin Bacon's death-by-arrow scene in the original Friday the 13th over and over again?

Somehow, my taste in film evolved from that point, though. I think it must have been my early exposure to the writings of influential modern film critic Pauline Kael that aided in the personal evolution process---not only because her prose was so passionate and vivid, but also because her rave review of Martin Scorsese's early 1973 film Mean Streets led me to one of the most transforming film experiences of my young life.

Mean Streets startled me when I was young because, up to that point---maybe when I was still in junior high school---I had never seen anything quite like it. It was the film's realistic feel that really got to me, I think. Having been weaned on craving the scary and fantastical, I was stunned to discover that movies could also reflect real life. (Of course, I would only pick up on Scorsese's use of expressionistically hellish lighting in Mean Streets much later, when I actually started being conscious of the visuals of a film.)

If there was a moment which crystallized my passion for film and thinking about movies, it was probably Mean Streets that did it. And if there was one single moment that crystallized my interest in writing about film---well, perhaps that moment came at the end of last summer when I finally decided to drop out of the Rutgers Business School and refocus my energies on journalism and movies at Rutgers.

I indulge briefly in this flight of nostalgia to perhaps suggest the reason as to why I responded as much as I did to the warmth and nostalgia of A Prairie Home Companion, and maybe to Robert Altman's style in general.

I say the latter cautiously only because I haven't yet explored much of Altman's work; except for M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), and The Player (1992), I haven't seen a lot of his films in order to know for sure if I've gotten his style or his sensibility totally pinned down. But, even if A Prairie Home Companion may not have the occasional sharp edges of those three films, it has a complicated but wonderful feeling to it that I always treasure when I see it in a film: the feeling that I'm seeing real life playing out in front of me, the feeling that I'm seeing real people interacting, and especially the feeling that the film's director has a genuine interest in seeing these real people interact.

Perhaps some of that feeling comes from Altman's sound: he once again uses overlapping dialogue, and the result, as it has always been, sounds more "live" than most movie sound. But, for me, that feeling goes all the way back to my personal experience with Mean Streets: the feeling of watching not a film, but real life filtered through a director's vision. (Scorsese didn't use overlapping dialogue in the way that Altman has made famously his, and yet in Mean Streets he managed to achieve a similarly sharp effect.) Sure, I could probably take the occasional well-made action film or even the occasional scary horror flick. But, given the choice between sitting through the pointless non-stop action spectacle of a Mission: Impossible III and the parade of intimate human emotions marching through A Prairie Home Companion, these days I'd surely take the latter every time.

I'm not sure how else to describe the glow I felt from this film except to suggest that it's the same glow I've felt from watching, say, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, even Alexander Payne's Sideways: humanist works that actually bother to tell touching human stories or evoke recognizable yet complex human emotions. A Prairie Home Companion may not quite be on the same level as those films, but the sensibility is similar: the attention to, and affection for, human detail allied with technical rigor. For Altman, the people matter, not empty style.

But enough about what I felt; what is A Prairie Home Companion about? By detailing the fictional backstage and onstage goings-on in the final two broadcast hours of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show of the same name, Altman creates a metaphysical portrait of a group of people dealing with the passing of an era. I say "metaphysical" because many of the characters in the film are physical manifestations of fictional characters featured on Keillor's radio show. The satirical Guy Noir, for instance, becomes an actual detective in this film, a security guard of sorts for the show. (He's played by Kevin Kline with a mix of understated elegance and subtle spoofery.) But the most metaphysical creation of them all is Virginia Madsen's Dangerous Woman, a self-proclaimed angel who hovers over the film as a symbol of the film's meditation on death, both physical and spiritual.

Robert Altman is 81 and getting up there in years, and it's easy to see A Prairie Home Companion as his way of dealing with his increasing old age through this intimate backstage saga that deals with the death of old-time radio, which is what Keillor's radio show represents, in a way---a real, if lightly satirical, blast from the past. That's probably why the film seems as lazy and relaxed as it is. But Altman's film is not obsessed with death: it still has too much love of life to be too bitter or depressing. (Maybe, in this respect, Lindsay Lohan's Lola, the suicide-obsessed daughter of the singing Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), is actually kind of a key character: it summarizes the film's complex attitude towards life and death.) Music abounds in this film, as it did in Nashville, not only to encapsulate character relations and express emotions (although Nashville admittedly does a better job of doing so), but also to simply give the film a lift. You can only hear this glorious music-making if you're alive, Altman seems to say.

A Prairie Home Companion isn't quite perfection. I found Tommy Lee Jones' Axeman---who appears about two-thirds of the way into the film---to be a slight misstep: when he fails to recognize the bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald---the theater in which "A Prairie Home Companion" is performed is named after him---you instantly know he's meant to be villainous, since he's the one that has pulled the plug on the show because he thinks the show is too out of touch with the times. It's a bit heavy-handed for a film that refuses to beat you over the head with anything else (although Jones underplays his role smoothly). And even if Altman is better than almost anyone else at creating character tapestries, I suppose at times I wished for a bit more dramatic meat to the characters. There are so many of them---although Nashville had more characters, to be sure---that inevitably not every character gets emphasized equally. (We never do get a sense of where Lola's obsession with with suicide actually comes from.)

But that may be the price Altman pays for his uniquely improvisatory approach to filmmaking, and I think what he's come up with in A Prairie Home Companion is good enough to be both sheerly enjoyable and rather touching. You don't really have to be a big fan of Garrison Keillor's radio show; you just have to be ready and willing to experience authentic real life onscreen. This may or may not be one of Altman's best films, but it shows a recognized master working out his own personal approach to dealing with death, and this kind of personal filmmaking is something that should be treasured. Though I risk sounding like one of these blurb writers, I'll go ahead and say it: A Prairie Home Companion in part reminded me of why I love movies.

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