Comfortable and Furious

A Prairie Home Companion

Directed by Robert Altman

It’s the sweetest example of a cinematic valedictory – Robert Altman, aging, frail, yet still teeming with wit and insight – 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 I’m not at all familiar with Garrison Keillor’s 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 Keillor’s 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 we’re carted off for the last time, we can release ourselves from the passions that drive us, and the noblest among us know when it’s 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 it’s 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 I’d 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 doesn’t 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 Altman’s 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 – all with specific places to go (this is a professional show, after all), but none so busy that they can’t 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 – whether in Altman’s world or in our own lives – 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 they’re not about to reintroduce themselves for our benefit. Because they’ve gone through these stages before, it is telling that all they have to say to each other – especially sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) – has to do with times gone by. It’s not just the case that the future is literally short (though it is), but also that they’re terrified of having to begin anew. And of course, this speaks to more than a change of jobs.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, I can’t remember when I’ve seen her so playful and disarming (certainly Adaptation comes to mind); she’s so good I wanted to follow her into another film. It’s clear that she’s 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), she’s a close relative of Nashville’s 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, she’s 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, she’s merely insisting, though gently, that they accept a very painful reality: no one really cares anymore.

And yes, even Kline’s 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. Scott’s head under his arm, it’s comical in its own way, but somehow sad. I’m certainly not one to mourn for a more innocent time or believe that we can or should go home again, but as a human being, I’m 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 it’s less that than a true connection to the human family for one of the few times I’ll 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. It’s that sort of recognition that engenders the most lasting form of empathy, even if it’s swiftly crushed by the mendacity and mediocrity of our species. Yes, we just want to hear we done good, even if we haven’t.