I feel like I have just returned from visiting an old friend, having spent a couple of hours laughing, telling jokes, hearing stories, singing together, and reminiscing about old times.
For over two decades my Saturday nights included the radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion”—often as I drove stretches of Illinois’ cornfields. Many countless hours I spent enjoying the music, drawn into the homespun humor and wisdom of Garrison Keillor and his silly but sometimes pithy comment-filled adventures of Detective Guy Noir. Often, in the midst of fairly mundane patter, I’d hear some epigram of the real that would stay with me. I have remembered—perhaps incorrectly, but nonetheless—a Guy Noir story epigram, “I would rather be burnished with use than rusty from neglect.” Another time, I remember a story Keillor told of Lake Woebegone about how a dove rose up to the rafters during one of the Lutheran minister’s sermons and how everyone sat wondering if it was the Holy Ghost having come to visit them. They are stories that the imagination of radio enhances and the show became routine enjoyment for me.
I love how when Keillor’s stories are well told that they suck me into their world. Robert Altman’s new film, A Prairie Home Companion, based on a screenplay by Garrison Keillor, does just that. There are no Lake Woebegone homilies here, but the entire film becomes that extended fictional narrative where anything can happen.
Some of the musical numbers speak so clearly to some place within me that I felt transcended watching them being performed. Merle Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson sisters were a joy to watch—and I found myself actually tearing up on their song about their mother and family moving on, remembering losses I've experienced also.
The movie is, after all, about death—a character dies, the show is to be killed off and the theatre is to be torn down. But the gentle spirit of Keiller keeps it from being too dark. After all, when Dangerous Woman wears a white trench coat “molded so tightly to her body that you can read her underwear,” humor staves off any fear of that Great By and By. Dangerous Woman says not to mourn the passing of an old man but rather rejoice in what he brought you. Is that any different than Emily in “Our Town” asking us to look at what is passing from our lives and hold on to it as long as we can? As the credits began, I felt good about myself… good about the film… good about life.
The music is one of the first reasons to see the film. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for Streep and Tomlin. The singing cowboys Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly offer two great specialty songs, and even Lindsay Lohan proves that she can belt out with the best of them. The rich husky gospel voice of diva Jearlyn Steele makes you want to join in at the end when she calls you to sing along. I wanted to… I wanted to clap and stomp my feet, but waited to applaud enthusiastically with the rest of the audience at the end.
Watching Altman’s films from McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) up to now, I’ve come to expect the characteristic ensemble acting, the overlapping speeches, the improvisational feel, but I don’t recall any film of his capturing the warmth and affirmation of life that this one does. Perhaps when Altman had his heart transplant 11 years ago, he learned how to share what is important with us.
Like Altman who is perhaps investigating his own mortality and Keillor who is investigating the end of 32 years of performing his radio show, I find myself past a triple bypass and the closure (perhaps) of 39 years of teaching. Like Meryl Streep’s character, I want to continue doing farewell tours for long as I can remember the lines. …And this movie helps me realize that goodbyes don’t wipe out the good memories. And sometimes just being and doing and enjoying for as long as you can is enough.
For Altman observations on the film check out below: