On the Air: Le Petit Théâtre de Robert Altman
By Fernando F. Croce

I'm relieved to hear Robert Altman has his next project set up, for Prairie Home Companion has a testament feel to it. The director himself encourages the aura of epitaph: "It's about death," he's said, yet has any other American filmmaker been killed and reborn more times than Altman? Hollywood is an inhospitable spot for artists, mulish mavericks most of all, and over the four decades of his career Altman has braved rain, snow, studio meddling and his own transplanted heart for utter independent expression, a quixotic journey with artistic ups and box-office downs. A career, with many detours along the way, that follows the agitator/maudit/old master arc paved by Buñuel, autumnal now yet scarcely willing to just lie down to be encased in Lifetime Achievement gold. The non-competitive Oscar has been dutifully handed out, as it was to Chaplin and Hitchcock, but Altman understands how little such awards mean in the flux of life, where existences overlap and art drifts fragilely. The themes are laid out over the credits, radio stations aurally switched on and off as dusk falls over a fixed vista, radio antenna and water tower and a languidly forming aurora borealis; the image becomes a reflection in a puddle, which is stepped on. The camera zooms languidly towards Mickey's Dining Car, all decked in neon, then back for pseudo-hardboiled narration by Kevin Kline's Guy Noir, on his way to Fitzgerald Theater. On with the show for Altman, and into life.

The show is Garrison Keillor's, the beloved radio revue the wry Minnesotan's been broadcasting since 1974; Keillor plays himself, or himself as Will Rogers as Altman, the benevolent maestro at the eye of the storm, both on and off the air. Tonight's the final performance, so there is extra bustle around the studio, all mellifluously arranged with the camera constantly on the move -- the dressing room where Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, a seasoned singing sister-act, doll themselves up is stocked with a panoply of mirrors for frames within frames, showing off perhaps too much Streep sugar and not enough Tomlin vinegar, the sort of composition Alan Rudolph took as mother's milk. The aged Altman, uninsured, reportedly had P.T. Anderson as stand-by director, and the mentor beats the tracking shot-mad student at his own game, no sweat -- the camera cranes up from the dressing rooms and tracks to the proscenium, where all the other characters flutter about. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are crooning cowboys, prone to tuneful, salty jokes; Lindsay Lohan is Streep's daughter, who writes poetry about suicide until she's trotted out as ingénue to fill in the show's remaining moments. Kline's Zen-like fumbling is what the Pink Panther remake muffed, Maya Rudolph's pregnant stage assistant provides deadpan and a rather disarmingly obvious counterpart to Virginia Madsen, who materializes in a white trenchcoat, an Angel of Death siding up to Keillor in between acts: "I used to listen to your show, till I died."

She's there not for him, but for elderly L.Q. Jones, who sings about friendship and rushes to his room for a rendezvous with lunch lady Marylouise Burke, expiring gently on the armchair with Madsen behind him. No less than Neil Young's twilight-tinged tour in Demme's Heart of Gold, death permeates the musicality of the narrative: Kline gets the Angel of Death to ride in the limo with the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), the dour corporate philistine who scoffs at the anachronistic integrity of it all from the comfort of the glass booth, but things inevitably come to an end and Keillor's (and the director's) community has to make way for the parking lots and the "computers playing music." Yet the film's feeling for mortality is balanced, if not totally dissipated, by the continuous flow of positive creativity that allows Altman's characters to reveal the furtive truths of their being, even at their clunkiest -- when Lohan does a tentative version of "Frankie and Johnny," her shortcomings aren't being mocked but displayed as another facet of her humanity, like Ralph Bellamy butchering "Home on the Range" for Leo McCarey. The awful truth for Altman, however, remains the inescapable progression of life, the sets (of the show, of the picture) in the end dismantled and the characters trying to stage a comeback only to spot the Angel of Death walking toward their table. Life is fleeting, but A Prairie Home Companion, slender and perfect, proves that art endures as a reminder of it.

*

Cars showcases another sort of culmination -- Pixar's grown so metallic that having automobiles for animated characters becomes disturbingly apt. The assembly-line nature of the product may have been foregrounded, but director (and company padrone) John Lasseter still needs a family-values cover: the hero, a hot-dog speedster named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), learns humility and an appreciation for good ol'-fashioned values via an accidental detour into "hillbilly hell" Radiator Springs, a dead-end burg populated by rusty auto-yokels. Sloooow down, feel the rhythm of days gone by, savor the gruff advice of town elder Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman), the love of a dishy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt) and other zany stereotypes (Larry the Cable Guy gives hollering pipes to a rusty redneck tow truck, George Carlin does a hemp-fueled VW bus, Cheech Marin voices a lowrider, etc.). Redemption through Disney values again; did I not just see all this in Over the Hedge? No furries for Pixar -- industrialized hyperactivity here motors straight out of the NASCAR pit, but peepers on a windshield and lips for bumpers don't exactly humanize the gleaming contours of cold titanium. The vocal work is zesty, the animation is beyond quicksilver, and yet Cars feels drab, a movie by machines about machines... for machines?

*

Why remake the The Omen? The lugubrious new version rapidly tosses in footage of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (odd how American tragedies demand priority even during a Vatican slideshow) to illustrate an incoming Armageddon, though any work with a prepubescent anti-Christ should never be this infernally tedious. Who's little Damian (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), the inky-mopped, monotonously glowering gnome being now whelped by the American ambassador (Liev Schreiber) and his wife (Julia Stiles)? The Devil, definitely, so things go demonically wrong around him -- animals run amok, churches chill him to the bone and nosy characters start enacting outtakes from the latest Final Destination installment (Pete Postlethwaite is skewered by stained glass shards and David Thewlis gets his noggin lopped off by a store sign). When not ludicrously telegraphing the gory set-pieces, director John Moore brings in crucifixes and nightmare sequences; malefic nanny Mia Farrow carries with her the Rosemary's Baby associations, but the director just wants leaden apocalyptic seriousness. Doesn't he know Satan gets the funniest lines? The 1976 Omen was reactionary where the decade's staples by Romero, Craven, Hopper and Cronenberg were transgressive, and the clunky retooling all too slavishly embodies the regression. At least the Hills Have Eyes remake earlier this year envisioned the turmoil as internal. We're now discussing the merits of remakes instead of looking at the originals -- a sign of cinematic Armageddon, no?


Reviewed June 15, 2006.

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