Farewell, old friend

Robert Altman's melancholic last film completes a glorious hat-trick

<strong>A Prairie Home Compan

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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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis