When an artist dies, the temptation to read some parting message into his or her swansong becomes irresistible. That urge is particularly strong with A Prairie Home Companion, the 34th picture by the mighty Robert Altman, who died in November, aged 81. This is a film permeated by thoughts of death - not just physical death, but the passing of eras and traditions.
There is even a kind of Grim Reaper figure mingling with the mortal characters, though with the effervescent Virginia Madsen in the role, the reaping was never going to be that grim. Neither, for that matter, is the film - in fact, it is one of this director's lightest, loveliest works. Death may be everywhere, but you are left with the feeling that there are worse things which could befall a person.
You could be a humourless philistine, for instance, or work for an unscrupulous corporation - both of which apply to the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who arrives in Minnesota to drop in on the last ever edition of A Prairie Home Companion, the cherished radio revue that his company is pulling the plug on. Observing the show, with its folksy mix of nostalgic anecdotes, country music and milk-and-cookies humour, the Axeman is perplexed: "I feel like an anthropologist finding some primitive tribe squatting round a fire in the forest telling stories."
Such aloofness is anathema to Altman, that most inquisitive and democratic of directors. Like a gracious party host, he introduces us to all the most fascinating guests and, before we realise it, we've become acquainted with these garrulous people and their higgledy-piggledy lives. There are the singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), whose elder sibling was sent down for the theft of a glazed doughnut. Yolanda's teenage daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), loiters around the dressing room writing poems about suicide ("Hanging by extension cord, carbon monoxide . . ."). The cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C Reilly) bicker fondly while waiting to perform their jaunty numbers and corny gags, such as Dusty's groan-worthy one about why his steed is no good at understanding philosophy - "Well, you can't put Descartes before the horse."
Threading his way through the backstage chaos is the debonair gumshoe-turned-security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), who speaks entirely in absurd hardboiled one-liners: "She had a smile so sweet, you could pour it on your pancakes. Her hair was what God had in mind when He said, 'Let there be . . . hair.'"
The owlish writer Garrison Keillor, who resembles Truman Capote on stilts, has hosted a real-life Prairie Home Companion on US radio on and off since the early 1970s. He wrote the screenplay, and appears here among the fictional characters as "GK", a version of himself. He's an unflappable, yarn-spinning MC for whom the division between life and performance is non-existent: he saunters up to the microphone, the curtain rises, and he slips seamlessly from off-stage chit-chat to on-stage patter. Even when Yolanda raises the subject of their failed romance in front of the audience, his voice stays as slow and steady as a steamroller.
GK's unsentimental asides also contribute to the film's pragmatism about death. "Don't you want people to remember you?" asks Lola at one point. "I don't want people to be told to remember me," Keillor sniffs, his words carrying the crisp zing of good sense.
You suspect Altman felt much the same. "The death of an old man is not a tragedy," one character points out, and, on the evidence of this director's rich career, it would be hard to disagree. Few people wasted any kind words on his staging of Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic last year, but it was in film that he flourished, and A Prairie Home Companion completes a glorious final hat-trick after Gosford Park (2001) and The Company (2003).
There's so much in the picture that represents Altman at his unique best - the slow, searching zoom shots that savour every detail, the complex sound design that enables us to eavesdrop on two or three improvised conversations at once. Sub-plots might fizzle out, and climaxes prove to be nothing of the sort, but I can't think of a better way to spend two hours than in the company of these amused, melancholic souls shooting the breeze in their last-chance saloon.
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