A Prairie Home Companion
I was introduced to Lake Wobegon (inexplicably, not in this film!) many years ago on a long road trip through Colorado. I was instantly enchanted by the small, imaginary Minnesota town and it's curmudgeonly residents...and to the soft, mellifluous, quicksilver voice of Garrison Keeler. I've been of fan of NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion” ever since.
The film version, like the real-life radio show, is a celebration of old-fashioned idiosyncrasy in a world dominated by automated, soulless corporate culture. The film takes place in an alternate reality, just a hair's breath different from our own. After 30 years on the air, the show and the theater from which it broadcasts are to be leveled by a Texas conglomerate to make way for a new parking lot. This will be their final performance.
There are lots of final performances in this film. A Prairie Home Companion is more a wake than a film, a cinematic musing on death and the inevitable end of all things. If this sounds dark or morbid, it's not. It is a euphoric display of gratitude for what we've been given. It's a celebration of a life and the joy chanced upon along the way. It's about treasuring fond memories and tall-tales.
Teeming with music, intentionally bad jokes, and an ensemble of gifted performers (many of whom are the radio show's real-life stars) who cannot hide the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying each another’s company, A Prairie Home Companion is a melancholy elegy to life well lived, a memorial to bygone days, a tribute to the power of dreams, a commendation to art that endures and a sermon to love what you have, not what you long for.
One can't help wondering if the 82-year-old Altman, who received an extremely well-deserved Honorary Oscar at last year's Academy Awards and admitted to a shocking heart transplant some years ago, sees the film's undercurrent of impending death in his own life. Then again, so long as the angel of death looks like Virginia Madsen, it must not keep him up too much of the night.
Altman, one of, if not the greatest living American director, and screenwriter Keeler have produced a lovely and bittersweet fable about morality, the fleetingness of fame, drawing strength from the past and finding the inevitable beauty in the darkest of situations. The result is a film that is magical, gentle, whimsical and joyous.
Sure, it may be minor Altman, but minor Altman is better than major most-anybody.