A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)
At eighty one, Robert Altman has established himself as one of the world's most important artists. His films have defined what several decades of American filmmaking should look and feel, and with that, have spawned many admirers and copycats. His latest feature, A Prairie Home Companion is probably his most delightfully personal film. It might very well have been made by Altman as his swan song, that final masterpiece to cap a wonderful and illustrious career. A Prairie Home Companion is so preoccupied with death that it might be mistaken as morbid or depressing. It is not. The death A Prairie Home Companion envisions is a death that is inevitable but sweet. It is a death that symbolizes an end to a lifetime of wonderful moments and familial relationships.
When one of the longtime beloved performers (LQ Jones) suddenly dies awaiting his lover, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), the daughter of the one of the show's singing sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep), insists that Garrison Keillor (who reprises his real life personage in the film) that people should know about the passing and that a moment of silence should be given to honor the man. Keillor declines noting that radio does not know silence, and more importantly, he doesn't want people to be forced to honor life. Lola cries and doesn't quite understand the wisdom to Keillor's words. She's in her teens and busies herself writing poetry about death and suicide, designating herself as an expert on mortality but when faced with death as close as that day, she succumbs to emotionality and dissolves the mask her teenage sensibilities have forced her to wear.
Death is such a pervading presence in the live radio show that although quite absurd, death actually shows up in the form of a seductive femme fatale (Virginia Madsen), all dressed in a white trench coat and dizzyingly glides through the many passageways of the theater, finally attracting the dim-witted and self-important security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). Noir fashions himself a private eye, but instead has landed a job as security officer to the dying radio show. He talks and moves about like a forgotten leading man, without the dashing macho sexuality, causing him to rely on flirtation to establish his masculinity. Noir's character gives form to the nebulous array of live musical performances and notable talk about life and nostalgia by summing everything into a storyline which involves the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) closing down the show that played at the Fitzgerald Theater, a building that will be demolished to make way for a parking lot. There's a funny joke there on how vicious corporations take down little human businesses in favor of spaces for automobiles. Noir seeks the identity of the luscious femme fatale while finding ways to stop the Axeman from closing down the show which he himself (he tries so hard to be part of the musical cast and crew that in one scene, he insists on playing the piano as a signal, but I'm sure he just wants to let the crew know that he knows a bit about music and is not entirely an outsider to the radio show family) has become an integral part of his life.
Altman directs the film with a mixture of understated flair and grace. The antiquated theater contains narrow passageways leading to dusty wooden dressing rooms, where ghosts float in and out the rooms and to and fro the corridors. Altman's camera wafts through the theater like a a voyeur, catching the denizens of the radio show in their several conversations and banter, most of which are memorable throwbacks to past secret relationships, and discussions on dismissed opportunties. Altman's visual assuredness keeps the characters glued into one beautiful relationship, that when the Axeman finally arrives to tell the rumored closing down of the show, the film exudes a poignant note that simply breaks your heart. You've heard their stories, you've seen them sing and dance, you've participated in listening to their heartaches, their joys and their little discussions about nothing, that to see everything end with a cruel Texan destroying everything that he has no actual knowledge of is utterly painful.
The most heartbreaking of all is that that's probably what everybody is expecting from the aging Altman; that one day, the newspapers, radio programs, and entertainment shows will mourn his passing. Altman here is detailing the inevitability of death while showing that it's not all bad. He after all ends his film with a dubious note involving the angel of death staring through the celluloid and Noir trying to find out who's to die next by little hand signals. He follows up the ending by a joyous song that accompanies the end credits. Altman seems to see death as an expected result of the greatness of life, and that there's no point in mourning a passing, and instead, one should celebrate life, the same way the best way to celebrate the end of the radio program (which I believe, is still around) is to replay the memorable songs that have touched and affected the millions of patrons it has served the past thirty years.