A Prairie Home Companion (USA 2006, 105 min, dir: Robert Altman, cast: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Garrison Keillor)
At the end of the movie, the Angel of Death enters an all-night cafe where the cast is having coffee and reminiscing. The implication is she will take them all. But Garrison Keillor and his troupe survived. Director Robert Altman is dead.
The radio show on which this film is based has been broadcast every week since 1974 (with a five year hiatus when Keillor moved to Europe) It is a living American phenomenon. Yet Garrison Keillor wrote this script about death. The Angel of Death is one of the stars (Virginia Madsen).
The movie hasn’t been liked by many. My enthusiasm is a minority view. It’s tough to make a movie about a legend when the legend lives in weekly installments that are more interesting than any movie. To view A Prairie Home Companion objectively you would need to be from Mars (or maybe Cambodia). Then the question is: why would you give a shit about a lot of old farts singing folk songs and dying?
Keillor’s audience is not Cambodians; it is American Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964). The America in which these citizens came of age included The Atom Bomb Scare, the Communist Menace, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Women’s lib and The Pill. A Prairie Home Companion is their connection to the mythical America of their parents where everything was supposedly the way it should have been.
Garrison Keillor is a gifted storyteller and a clever borrower. Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was on the air from 1933 to 1968. If you really want to know the roots of A Prairie Home Companion get the book Don McNeill and his Breakfast Club and listen to the enclosed CD of some old shows.
But Don McNeill was just doing a breakfast show. Garrison Keillor is our pastor and his sermon is about death. Yes, death is the theme of the radio show and also the movie. Did you know the title comes from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota? Garrison’s soothing voice is a reassurance that even though we missed the great years, we can still relive them on the radio and carry eternity like a backpack. He conjures up the same mystical hypnotism that makes us endlessly watch new productions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and leave teary-eyed.
In the movie, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohman, and John C. Riley top the cast that circles Garrison and tries to lift him out of his melancholia. He gives himself a pivotal role but lets them carry the spotlight. A lot of people are disappointed he didn’t just stick with the radio show and make himself the big star. But this is a MOVIE. It has a point of view. It is drama, not a daily breakfast show or weekly Saturday night variety show.
The writer is telling us that the America of the radio show, the America in our heads: is no longer. It is a childhood myth we need to get past. Maybe that is why Lindsay Lohman, the only character in the entire movie who is too young to be a Baby Boomer, makes her mother, Meryl Streep, sign power-of-attorney papers in the ending scene. She’s telling her Mom it’s okay to go on believing in her lovely boomer fairytales about American as long as her daughter is practical enough to decide when to cut off life support.
Looking at the film as a sunset ode to the Boomer Generation makes it more than informational. Keillor and Altman are Boomers both. They are writing their own epitaph. For Altman it was (his last film). I wish Keillor many more years. When he ended the radio show back in 1987 (and resumed it five years later), he closed with a remembrance from his boyhood when he imagined floating around the bend in the river to a world he could only imagine.
For those who heard that last broadcast the image has never faded, and the hope of what is to come has not dimmed. His is the lulling voice calming our fears about what is to come. If you are a certain age, see the movie and understand what Keillor and Altman are trying to say. If you are Cambodian, see Ghost Banana Tree instead.