Cinema - A Prairie Home Companion

The tradition of radio shows linking rural communities across wide geographical distances is an important one in America, which may not be immediately obvious to a UK audience. Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, pays homage to this authentic, slightly schmaltzy, small town, mid-western cultural tradition. To make the film, Altman collaborated with broadcaster Garrison Keillor, writer and presenter of the weekly radio programme the film bases itself on. The radio show is performed in front of a live audience, usually in Minnesota (Fargo territory) and has been running for thirty years. It features music ranging from bluegrass to gospel, comic sketches, fake advertisements, serials, and news from Keillor's fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon. I was a regular listener when I lived in the States, and you get the sense that it is listened to by Democrats everywhere (and maybe a few Republicans), wanting to believe, as I do when I’m watching The West Wing, that this warm, cosy world is the real one.

The film is an ensemble piece, funny, closely observed and beautifully lit by Edward Lachman, beginning and ending in a diner evocative of an Edward Hopper painting. There are strong performances by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, as country singers, and by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as cow-pokes. It is interesting that Altman made the film at a time when the Bush administration is the subject of worldwide anti-American sentiment. It taps into something important about an American sense of itself as a community. EC

Robert Altman’s last film rows us across the placid waters of
Lake Wobegon
Gardner Arts Centre, Falmer
When? 7pm
How Much? £5/ £4
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