Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" and the power of memories.
Every summer during my early teens, I spent a month at a camp in Northern California on the Eel River. It was a run by a family of farmers who during the rest of the year grew vegetables and made specialty jams that they would sell by mail order. It was, in fact, a working farm, with chickens producing eggs and goats making milk and cows being butchered for meat. The summer camp was just one small part of the entire operation, and for those few weeks, each of us felt like we were a part of keeping the farm working. We would have our chores in the mornings and afternoons, and would rotate jobs every 2 days. Some were more pleasant than others: Moving irrigation pipes early at dawn was dreaded, but milking the goats was a highlight. After breakfast there would be arts and crafts or swimming in the river or playing ping-pong. In the evenings there would be campfires and singing with guitars.
Like many grown-ups, I can report that those summers are amongst my favorite memories. Sometimes when I can't sleep, I'll close my eyes and imagine being under those apple trees as the laughter of my friends baking bread wafted out from the kitchen. I remember wading up the river with my backpack above my head, slowly moving towards a faraway campground where we would cook out and sleep under the stars; churning ice-cream for hours to produce exotic flavors for the annual 4th of July "Ice Cream Social"; playing Steal-the-Flag on a huge open field with hay barrels as obstacles. Emandal was an idyllic community experience: Everyone worked together, played together, sang together. It was pretty much as good as it gets.
Last year, now in my late 20s, I decided to go back. It had been a particularly stressful few months at work, and this seemed like the perfect vacation. A friend of mine had recently had a baby, and she also needed a break from the trials of single motherhood. So we signed up for "family camp," packed up the car, and headed North for what I hoped would be a few days of re-capturing my childhood. Over the course of that weekend, I learned that it's true what they say: That you can't go home again. I didn't have a bad experience, but it was never going to be the same -- those times had passed, I had grown up, and the simplicity of what had been couldn't be recreated.
These feelings about the past -- the happy memories with the knowledge that they're gone forever, the bittersweetness of aging -- is the main theme of Robert Altman's film, A Prairie Home Companion, which opened this past weekend. Like many of Altman's films, it's less a narrative story and more a pastiche of people's lives over the course of one evening, as the players on a 30-year old radio program gather for one last night of telling bad jokes, singing old songs, reminiscing about lost loves and facing their own mortality. It's at once a rollicking good time of great music and tender emotions, and a gentle meditation on death; it's also a political statement about the loss of simplicity of a time when radio (and entertainment) was handmade and good-natured, childish and playful, and jokes about naked bottoms were scandalous; it's a director's love letter to the people he's worked with, the friends he's lost and to an America of porch-swings and innocent humor and music that no longer exists. It's perhaps the wisest and most genuinely affecting movie that I've seen in years, and filled me with the warmth and longing that I experience thinking about my childhood on the farm up North.
Memories fill every frame of Prairie Home: From Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson) sparring to impress a girl and slyly revealing tidbits about each other, to the Lunch Lady (Marylouise Burke) who cries when talking about all the people she's made sandwiches for over the past three decades, to Garrison Keillor's tall tales about how he got into the business. But perhaps most poignant are the stories told by sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) -- a singing duo ala Hazel and Alice -- about growing up, how they learned to perform, their mother and the people who are now gone. They banter back and forth, tossing anecdotes and jokes and moments they both remember. We've all been there, and know that feeling of having only one person in the world who can remember things that nobody else knows. Listening in is Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who is unwittingly gathering all the stories for herself, which she will eventually pass on to her children someday. But the funny thing is, stories are being made just as quickly as they are being told. When L.Q. Jones (Chuck Akers) dies in the middle of the broadcast with his pants down, you imagine that this too will go into the catalog of tales that these people share in the future. For Altman, it seems, the salve for not getting bogged down in old memories is to continually make new ones -- this sharing of new experiences is what binds us to other people, and keeps life interesting and worth living.
The death of Jones might be the most downbeat moment in the film, but Altman approaches it with a quietness and hush that could only come from a director who has made peace with the idea that we're all going to go someday, and it's not that great a tragedy. (One character says, "Is there a better way to die than with your pants down waiting for your lover?") This vision of death feels totally appropriate with the tone of the rest of the film -- that it might just be another story to tell in the passage of our lives. There are no histrionics -- except for the young Lola, who, despite her poems about suicide, fears death and doesn't yet know how to handle it -- just a quiet goodbye. The Dangerous Lady (Virginia Madsen) is the angel who carries people up to heaven to meet God. It's a peaceful process, and she seems to be with us at all times, floating in and out of rooms, reminding us that it's always around the corner, so make the best and funniest and kindest stories you can while you are here. Ugly deaths (like that of Tommy Lee Jones -- the "Axeman" who has come to shut down the radio station) are reserved for the selfish and cold-hearted; indeed, in the film, the Axeman sits in judgment in his cold, isolated booth -- not interacting with or caring about those around him. The Dangerous Lady leads him to drive off a cliff, trying to exploit a shortcut on his way to the airport, and probably no one will remember him. This is Altman's warning: Be a member of the show, care about your fellow man, have good stories to tell, sing with other people, and death will come at a moment of joy and peace and fulfillment.
In one of the final scenes of the film, there's an accidental 6-minute hole at the end of the broadcast, and Lola must take the stage for the first time to fill the gap. She's a little wobbly at first, but you get the sense that everyone listening hopes she will carry the traditions forward, although with a little flair of her own. (She sings a classic song, "Frankie and Johnnie" -- but inserts her own, contemporary lyrics.) In the final scene, Lola shows up at a diner wielding a cell phone and talking of mutual funds. She won't be carrying on the baton, and all that will be left are the memories. At one point earlier in the film, Garrison Keillor talks about how he wants to be remembered. He says he doesn't want to tell people why to remember him, but hopes that they will on their own -- that his work and the stories he told will live on. Altman received an honorary Oscar last year, and I seem to recall that his speech focused on the people he'd worked with, and the families he had created on the films he made. (Granted, it's a hazy memory. This was a few hours into the ceremony and the coma was probably starting to set in.) Altman didn't need anyone to tell the audience why we should remember him. A movie like Prairie Home isn't easily forgotten, and I have a feeling that, for me, it will reverberate for many years to come.
Getting Reel is a biweekly commentary about movies and the world.