Directed by Robert Altman
ItÂs the sweetest example of a cinematic valedictory Â Robert Altman, aging, frail, yet still teeming with wit and insight Â faces the cold breath of mortality with A Prairie Home Companion, a delightful ode to endings; some happy, some not, but all unfailingly inevitable. Given that IÂm not at all familiar with Garrison KeillorÂs radio broadcast (nor much of his career, period), I expected little from the movie, and must admit that I was moved to go only out of an obligation to Altman, one of the true giants of the art form. I figured that at best I would be distracted by a few corny jokes, a silly song or two, and that unmistakable overlapping dialogue that has been much imitated, but never equaled. Who knew that Altman (along with KeillorÂs charming script) would focus so intently on the matter-of-factness of death itself; that while it will come for all of us, it need not be the only way in which to punch that final clock. In many ways, the film understands that before weÂre carted off for the last time, we can release ourselves from the passions that drive us, and the noblest among us know when itÂs time to give it a rest. This may in fact mean the end of life for many, but stepping aside can be as simple as a gesture; the nod of agreement that yes, my time in the sun is no more. There are others waiting for their shot.
Again, one need not have any familiarity with (or love for) Mr. Keillor to embrace this picture, and itÂs the kind of experience that will grow with the years, insisting on repeated viewings, but tinged with a warning that it might be best to keep it forever pure. It might fade with time, or even become ordinary, but IÂd like to remember it as a simple delight; not perfect by any means, but perfectly rendered, which is little more than the acknowledgment that whatever Altman intended, he accomplished. As usual, the camera sweeps and swoons about while a community springs into action, in this case the back- and on-stage performers of a long time radio show during its final night. Such a premise is packed with potential predictabilities, but none of them come to pass, even if an old cast member dies in his room. The man in question, Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) meets the Angel of Death (Virginia Madsen, known here as Dangerous Woman), but without a trace of sentiment. Keillor doesnÂt even want to memorialize the man on the air. Chuck also spent his final moments half-naked and within reach of massage oil to be used by his frisky lover (Marylouise Burke), which, upon reflection, is likely AltmanÂs way of putting on film his own desire for a last gasp. As a character notes, Chuck died with hope in his heart, which just might be the rarest of all possible outcomes for any of us.
Other characters wander about Â all with specific places to go (this is a professional show, after all), but none so busy that they canÂt share a bit of themselves in fleeting snippets. For this reason alone, Altman deserves the highest acclaim, for he commands a level of attention nearly absent in more mainstream fare. Even a random sentence opens a new portal of insight, and what appears to be banal becomes the most revealing of all. For is it not the case that a word or gesture, seemingly tossed about without care, could be the last thing we ever utter? Or might it force another to consider something previously buried beneath layers of denial and apathy? More than that, Altman probes these otherwise throwaway conversations to discover how it is we seek to justify our lives at every conceivable turn. Every utterance Â whether in AltmanÂs world or in our own lives Â seeks to defend a decision, rationalize a course of action, or serves to elevate our case above that of other competing visions. As such, especially within a closed world like a radio show, we listen for the words that renew bitter rivalries, or rub new salt in old wounds. These people have seen it all together, and theyÂre not about to reintroduce themselves for our benefit. Because theyÂve gone through these stages before, it is telling that all they have to say to each other Â especially sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) Â has to do with times gone by. ItÂs not just the case that the future is literally short (though it is), but also that theyÂre terrified of having to begin anew. And of course, this speaks to more than a change of jobs.
Speaking of Meryl Streep, I canÂt remember when IÂve seen her so playful and disarming (certainly Adaptation comes to mind); sheÂs so good I wanted to follow her into another film. ItÂs clear that sheÂs helpless without her sister act, but that would assume she even has that under control. Appearing ditzy, stoned, drunk, and defiantly flirtatious all at once (her cleavage provides more than one laugh), sheÂs a close relative of NashvilleÂs Barbara Jean in that the performance is the only way in which to feel truly alive. For her, then, life does in fact end with the final curtain. By the end of the film when, a few years later, sheÂs visited by her now successful daughter (Lindsay Lohan), she reverts to a child, unable to manage even basic duties, and still dreaming of a new tour with Rhonda. That same roadside diner finale features Keillor and Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), all having put the radio show to bed in one sense, but not so much that they keep their costumes in mothballs. Thankfully, the Angel of Death comes for the lot of them, though not necessarily to escort them to the grave. Here, sheÂs merely insisting, though gently, that they accept a very painful reality: no one really cares anymore.
And yes, even KlineÂs anachronistic narrator seemed just right, as if it made sense that a man out of step with the times would usher an old fashioned radio program to its final rest. When he plays a final tune while the Fitzgerald Theater meets the wrecking ball (and offers a few familiar lines from Robert Herrick), right before taking F. ScottÂs head under his arm, itÂs comical in its own way, but somehow sad. IÂm certainly not one to mourn for a more innocent time, or believe that we can Â or should Â go home again, but as a human being, IÂm as susceptible to the same endings felt by Altman and Keillor. Both men are a bit cynical and in their own way, unsentimental, and each understands that joy can never be defined as a state of being; it is merely a passing, all-too-brief moment that serves only to punctuate the tedium, despair, and pain that defines most of what we know as life. Too much of it is dull, predictable, embarrassing, and even trying, and too little of it makes a damn bit of sense. Appreciate the moment, then? Is that it? Perhaps, though itÂs less that than a true connection to the human family for one of the few times IÂll admit to having. Nearly every act we embark upon is a frantic pursuit for what we, at least subconsciously, know cannot last, but there we go time and again. ItÂs that sort of recognition that engenders the most lasting form of empathy, even if itÂs swiftly crushed by the mendacity and mediocrity of our species. Yes, we just want to hear we done good, even if we havenÂt.