In which Altman doesn’t go gentle into that good night
Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, based in part on Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show, observes the last stand of a mom-and-pop radio program at the (F. Scott) Fitzgerald Theater. It is obviously the film of a master and certainly feels like a swan song (purportedly, Paul Thomas Anderson was stationed on the set for insurance purposes). This is very much an old man’s movie, but it doesn’t dodder in regret for time past — Altman has kept the skeptical tough-mindedness of a smart-ass teenager. With a (frightened?) air of, “I’m just making a movie, I’m just doing my thing,” this great director sneaks up on his own mortality and boldly takes death as his primary subject. The effect is rueful and chilly, like a giggle at a funeral.
Altman glances with graceful fondness at his actors, treating them as jazz musicians expected to wait for their solos. Music has become increasingly important to Altman (as evidenced by Annie Ross’ torching in Short Cuts and the jam sessions in his undervalued Kansas City), and he presents the Midwest-style cornpone acts of Prairie Home in tight, respectful close-ups. Bitterness mars a lot of Altman’s work, and he has often sneered at some of his characters uncharitably, but the people in Prairie Home Companion are used as archetypes, and whether Altman likes them or not is beside the point.
This is virtuoso work, thrillingly offhand. Altman’s constantly floating camera frames and re-frames what we need to see, and his actors are pressed to invent and enliven their part of his fresco. Some are more suited to this task than others. Porcelain blond Virginia Madsen is asked to play an Angel of Death (called The Dangerous Woman) in a white raincoat who watches over the show like a dazed fan. It’s an extremely difficult conception, but Madsen plays it exquisitely, with just the right kind of wondering strangeness. Keillor himself makes an intriguing camera subject as the show’s announcer; he doesn’t seem like an actor, and this is all to the good.
But the film can handle all kinds of performing styles, as is proved by Altman’s handling of Meryl Streep, who is utterly unsuited to his world and his methods yet doesn’t sink the film. Streep is a star, and she behaves like one. She’s playing a not-very-bright half of a sister singing act (with an enjoyably sardonic Lily Tomlin), but her busy facial mugging and needless Wisconsin accent proclaim the authority of The Great Actress of Our Time. Expressing displeasure at Kevin Kline’s fastidious klutz Guy Noir in her last scene, she pulls down every single muscle in her face, collapsing it into a ruin and then building it back up in a flash. It’s a brilliant, if stagy, technical effect, but such Lady Bracknell flourishes don’t suit her dim, amiable character in the slightest. Unlike Altman, Streep’s mastery is still much too self-conscious. To be fair, though, she loosens up considerably when singing several songs with Tomlin.
Lindsay Lohan, who plays Streep’s daughter, is used quite cleverly as an emblem of the future. You’re never quite certain where Altman stands with her youthful character, who writes poetry about suicide (he shows you her cutesy handwriting, which should be a clue). In the end, when Lohan sings “Frankie and Johnny,” I was surprised at how indulgent Altman seemed of her, as if he thought the new generation might not be so bad. But in her last scene she has morphed into a bottom-line bitch asking her mother to sign over power of attorney, which lets us know that Altman is not going gently into that great night.
If the film has a key sequence, it is the death of Chuck Akers (L. Q. Jones), an old singer who has a lusty relationship with lunch-lady Evelyn (Mary Louise Burke). He falters slightly at the end of his song “You Have Been a Friend to Me,” as if the Grim Reaper’s fingers were lightly touching his neck, and he dies in his underwear, waiting for a roll in the hay with Evelyn. Madsen’s Dangerous Woman tells Evelyn that it’s never a tragedy when an old man dies, an ambiguous statement. As if to counteract this, Burke does something very unusual: she rubs noses with her dead lover, Eskimo-style, saying goodbye to him in her own special way.
This affectionate little nose rub is one of the most touching moments in all of Altman’s work, and he’s earned the right to some honest tears. But he shows where his mind is by immediately cutting to Kline’s Guy Noir, who tells singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) the sad news of Chuck’s demise. Fart noises are heard, one fart, then another, then another. When Streep’s Yolanda tearfully insists that Keillor should say something on the air about Chuck’s death, he declines. “Don’t you want to be remembered?” asks Lohan. Keillor replies toughly that he does want to be remembered, but he doesn’t want people to be told to remember him. Life goes on, and Altman knows that the (funny) vulgarity of exploding bodily functions and the refusal of sentimentality is as sure a weapon against the fear of death as we have. So are movies as masterfully made and acutely observed as A Prairie Home Companion.