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A Prairie Home Companion: Altman's last ride

About the author
Maggie Gee is the author of ten novels including The White Family, The Flood and My Cleaner (Saqi/Telegram Books) and most recently a book of short stories, The Blue.

Robert Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion, made a decade after a successful heart transplant and in the knowledge of the cancer that killed him, is a beautifully crafted, sweet-tempered goodbye to life and art which also offers a genuine metaphysical thrill. It's the end of the career of one of America's greatest filmmakers, with a strikingly diverse output that includes MASH (1970), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001).

Lightly and in passing, A Prairie Home Companion situates Altman in the pantheon of great American popular artists, alongside Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Edward Hopper. All but Hopper hail from the midwest, like Altman.

The film is based on another midwesterner, Garrison Keillor's, real life radio show, the original "A Prairie Home Companion", a retro mix of music and dry humour which still regularly plays to live audiences on stage at the same time as it goes out over the air-waves. In some ways the film is structured like another night of the long-running American show.

The fictional action opens just before a saturnine Keillor, his voice a light silken moan, takes the mike centre stage in the Fitzgerald Theatre, St Paul, Minnesota. But Altman's direction and Keillor's screenplay have added a darker edge. In Altman's film, this is the final night of the show because corporate America, in the form of a hardbitten scripture-quoting Texan, ‘Axeman' (played with mean-faced impassivity by Tommy Lee Jones), is visiting tonight as a last formality before demolishing the theatre.

Axeman sits alone and glancing at his watch, removed from the enthusiastic audience by his glassed-in VIP box, his face more stony than that of the box's only other inhabitant - a bust of F Scott Fitzgerald, that great novelist of the jazz age (who Axeman has never heard of). Fitzgerald was born in St Paul, and the half smiling head of the local boy is lit up to the left of Axeman, who never looks across at him, so we constantly feel the lack of connection between business and art as well as between business and the community in the auditorium below.

Three of the film's other cultural heroes, Chandler, Hopper and Twain, come in at the very beginning. We are put in the picture about the closure of the theatre by the velvety voice of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). Noir is the theatre's immaculately turned out security man, and his prose and sartorial style are a nod to Raymond Chandler, midwestern author of literary detective stories. Noir is a brilliant comic conceit, his parting straight as a ruler though he cannot walk without tripping over or pick something up without dropping it.

We first see him lit up in the bright window of night-enclosed Mickey's Diner, a man in a dark suit and a grey fedora hat placed side by side with the white-suited-and-capped diner attendant. Figures and setting both closely recall one of Edward Hopper's most famous pictures, ‘Nighthawks', which now hangs in Chicago. Later the set behind the stage performers is a softly lit exterior of a white clapperboard house whose porch and windows are like those which Hopper, that great narrative painter and recorder of the poetry of ordinary American lives, loved to paint.

Last comes another classic American artist, Mark Twain. Garrison Keillor tells a long shaggy dog story about how he got into radio that begins with Keillor playing Huckleberry Finn on a raft on Mark Twain Day, and metaphors and songs about rivers permeate the rest of the film.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942

Like The Player, Altman's 1992 film about Hollywood, this is a film partly about making art. It celebrates its actors as well as its cultural icons, revelling in the camaraderie of ensemble playing in the long, intimate scenes of backstage gossip and horse-play. Altman has always got great performances from his actors because he trusts them and likes to let the camera run (including, this time, a memorable long take of Streep and Tomlin improvising that rivals the famous 8-minute opening tracking shot in The Player.)

Here the big, relaxed cast combines the real-life radio stars from Keillor's show (like Tom Keith, the genius who does all the sound effects with his mouth) with an 18-carat collection of Hollywood greats acting at the top of their game. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin singing their hearts out as the Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda; and Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly having the time of their lives playing Dusty and Lefty, a duo of cowboy singers with an irrepressible gift for off-colour humour.

The youngest generation of big-time Hollywood stars is represented by Lindsay Lohan playing Lola, the skinny, sulky daughter of Streep's softly maternal Yolanda. Lola's from a different, colder world than her mother, hardly knowing her own father, sitting backstage scowling and writing songs about suicide as her mother and aunt reminisce about family.

Lola claims she can only sing her own songs, but when the programme finishes six minutes short, Yolanda and Rhonda call her on stage to save the day in what seems like a text-book happy ending. But Lola loses the words she has written, panics and is saved by the old repertoire that everyone knows, busking a performance of ‘Frankie and Johnny' to ecstatic applause from the other actors. Yolanda and Rhonda crown her with a Stetson.

But in the film's epilogue, set a few years on from that final night, Lola is on her own again, darting with expensively streaked hair and mobile into the diner where the old hands sit happily planning a nostalgia tour only to tell her mother off for being hopeless with money and make her sign a form giving Lola power of attorney. She has not become a singer but a highly paid executive in a religious software company. Gentle and warm though it is, this film is salted with sharp ironies, should you choose to pick them up.

The final bow

What it has to say about death, though, in the end resists irony. A Prairie Home Companion contains four unsettling outsiders, Axeman, Guy Noir, the teenage Lola and finally ‘Dangerous Woman'. Dangerous Woman has a long tumble of blonde curls and a dazzling white trench-coat, and seems at first like a femme fatale from the same thriller as Guy Noir. But not everyone can see her. And she is literally fatal.

Radiant as a 1940s movie icon with a high clear forehead and an expression of infinite compassion, the woman is in fact Asphodel, an angel of death, her name taken from that of the lilies which cover the Elysian fields. She threads her way gracefully and silently among the cast and the flats backstage, looking for the performer she has to take up to heaven, Chuck Akers. But Akers (LQ Jones, with long white hair that recalls Altman's) has his eyes set on life and his affair with a catering assistant, a woman of his own age.

Death comes to him in his dressing-room after a rousing last song on stage in which he thanks the audience and says goodbye. Chuck dies, as someone says, with ‘a heart full of hope', in his strawberry-printed underpants, with music playing in readiness for the arrival of his mistress. When she finally comes looking for him, she finds him dead and is comforted by Asphodel. ‘Forgive him for his shortcomings and be thankful for the love and care he showed...'

Asphodel comes to guide souls safely up to heaven, and what she says is always simple (though even she is ironised; she assures us that ‘Every sparrow is remembered', but within seconds has forgotten the word for mayonnaise.). After she reveals she is an angel, Noir asks her about sex. ‘If I were to... What would you feel?' She looks at him with gentle, shining eyes and says ‘I would feel love.'

Death, in this film, is not harsh, nor goodbyes something to lament. The cast tries in vain to make Garrison Keillor give a final speech or at least allow for a minute of silence, but he says that on radio, silence is just ‘dead air'. It's the living moment that is celebrated by this film about one of the most ephemeral of media. In the words of one of its songs, ‘The day is short, the night is long...' Nearly every song gives us the same message: gather ye roses while ye may.

Altman underlines it with a spine-tingling moment at the very end of the film when Asphodel approaches the table in the Hopper-esque diner where the four old troupers sit talking, oblivious. They suddenly see her, and fall silent, looking at her and then each other. Who has she come for this time? But she simply continues smoothly towards the camera and ourselves in her dazzling overcoat, until the whole screen before us is blank and white. Mr Altman, it's a wrap.

Study for "two comedians", Edward Hopper, 1966

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