Essay

Altman, Keillor, and the Suicide Poet Girl

Our reviewer hoped for a reflection of her adolescent poet-self in A Prairie Home Companion. She was bummed.

by Ange Mlinko

When you first see Lindsay Lohan in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, playing a teenage poet named Lola Johnson, she is trailing her dithery mother (Meryl Streep) and clutching a dog-eared notebook. Her black-frame glasses and long hair partially obscure a beautiful face whose only makeup is a determinedly grim expression; all around her stagehands are bustling and performers are joshing.

Streep is a singer in a proudly nostalgic variety show broadcast on Saturday night radio, and Lola looks every inch the rebel daughter, mopey and dismissive, in an EXTINCT IS FOREVER T-shirt and olive-drab jacket. When Mom mentions a dress she brought for her, Lola grumbles her defiance.

All the signs point to her as a foil for the middle-aged, middlebrow, and Middle West whimsy that will predominate for the next two hours.

That Lohan’s role comes packaged in the guise of a young female poet is no surprise—Garrison Keillor, who wrote the metafictional screenplay and stars as Himself—has been dubbed the “Dean of Poetry” by The Chronicle for Higher Education. The man who famously referred to Anne Sexton as a “hot number” in the introduction to his best-selling anthology Good Poems knew he needed one for his movie. It’s written into financing deals, I’m pretty certain.

In movies, the role of “poet,” suicidal or not, has often stood for disobedience. From Dead Poets Society to Henry Fool to biopics such as Before Night Falls and Total Eclipse, poets rebel and die. Lola, with her name, torn jeans, and the funny oxymoron of indie glasses and flag of blond hair, could be the perfect semaphore for sexy defiance.

I had heard about the Lola role and was anticipating a reprise of Altman’s technique in Gosford Park. In that film, an even bigger cast and multiple storylines were made to cohere, more or less, through a simple director’s trick: keep the camera close to the point of view of a young, attractive observer. In Gosford Park, that observer is the clever Glaswegian brunette Kelly Macdonald playing a quiet but sharp-eyed (and sharp–eared) lady’s maid. As she glides through the halls and rooms of Gosford Park, weaving seamlessly Upstairs and Downstairs, we overhear confessions and glimpse forbidden acts through her eyes and ears. And we could sympathize with her humanity when the whirl of the action distanced us from more crucial and cruel players.

So, it made sense to me that Altman’s camera would use Lola Johnson’s youth and beauty and alienation to similar ends—to present an ironic observer. The “suicidal” edginess even promised a hint of drama. Will Lola let loose with Dorothy Parkerisms? Hurt someone’s feelings? The film’s plot revolves around the fact that this is the last Prairie Home Companion ever. When the adults at last offer her a chance to sing, will she cut through the oatmeal and give the audience some Patti Smith? Is she or isn’t she the anti-Garrison Keillor?

Maybe I just needed someone to sympathize with. Aren’t her graffitied, torn jeans coded especially for my demographic with the date 4-5-94—The Day Kurt Cobain Died? (Do girls born in 1986 worship Cobain? When Lola opens her notebook, it’s the band names she doodles that catch my eye—The Smiths? Whose The Queen Is Dead came out in 1986?)

That glimpse inside Lola’s notebook has prurience to it. We hear her say again and again that she writes suicidal poems. In a “show, don’t tell” moment, she reads one aloud. When I hear the title, “Soliloquy for Blue Guitar,” I smile. Is she going to go beyond my wildest dreams and turn all Wallace Stevens on us? No. True to type, she reads tinny, teenage free verse about death. But the camera going over her shoulder, in virtual psychic striptease, is already a clue that the character is at the mercy of the movie, not vice versa.

Sure enough, as the story unfolds, Lola Johnson devolves into a series of incoherent stereotypes. She is not our sharp observer, just one of the ensemble. She isn’t a rebel, she’s Mama’s little girl tearing up when someone else dies backstage and she’s told the show must go on. There will be no critique of the Prairie Home Companion, or Keillor, or Meryl Streep’s pink shawls. There is, instead, another cliché rearing its head: the cliché of the Interchangeable Starlet, who serves no earthly purpose in a film besides eye candy.

Reader, this is the part when I became the teenage suicide girl: contorting in my seat, drawing up my knees, playing with my hair, tilting my head, and sighing loudly, squashing my cheeks. I was bored out of my skull.

Lola’s climactic moment comes when she is indeed given the spotlight at the end of the show, loses her original music, and ends up singing a version of “Frankie and Johnny,” which she apparently ad-libs a bit (a feat of improvisatory poetics?). Moreover, she sheds the olive-drab jacket and dons Streep’s powder-pink shawl! From sullen outsider to happy ensemble member, from threatening pseudo-intellectual to performer/true daughter—her narrative is all about absorption and assimilation. The suicidal poet trope was as much decoration as young Lindsay herself.

There’s a coda. Years after the show is shut down, Keillor, Streep, and company meet in a diner to discuss a revival and tour of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Suddenly Lola breezes in, modeling a black cell phone and curve-hugging power suit softened by a touch of puffed sleeves, what clothing catalogs call the “Poet’s Blouse.” A new style oxymoron has emerged, one appropriate to a former suicide babe turned financial advisor. “Have you even heard of mutual funds?” she snaps at her mother. Guess who turns out to be the authentic artist? Mom, with her lack of investment strategies. And the author of “Soliloquy for Blue Guitar” now manages portfolios.

Why does this feel like some sort of joke at the expense of poets, from beginning to end?

Or am I reading too much into another meaningless non sequitur of a role for interchangeable starlets?

Either way, Former Teenage Poet says: Gag me.

Originally Published: June 26, 2006

COMMENTS (3)

On December 19, 2008 at 8:05am Cy Lester wrote:
- Just read your review of A Blue Hand in LRB and went out and bought the book.

- I've always wanted more of the Beats. To know if they are still with us when others write about them. In this case - Deborah Baker finds the way.

- This book is good news. Nobody can take a course in THE BEATS.

Neither can they be a phony after Kerouac/Ginsberg/Burroughs/Corso. The Beats removed that threat. They found the context is the depth.

On April 24, 2009 at 6:43pm Henry Gould wrote:
Sounds like Lola got a grant from the Chicago Drug Queen Foundation, as well as an MFA scholarship! Go, Lo!

On May 4, 2009 at 10:05pm Brenda Skinner wrote:
She may not be a poet, but she's a young woman with guts and tenacity. See Anne Hathaway in 'Rachel Getting Married'. Here's a believable character, other than, as you have keenly pointed out, the bland portrayal of Lola by Ms. Lohan. Imagine Anne's character in the role of Lola...then again, perhaps the tone was meant to be watered down for the 'Prairie Home Companion' audience.

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 Ange  Mlinko

Biography

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010), a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award; Starred Wire (2005), which was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004 and a . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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