' Cinema Romantico: All Good Things Must Pass

Monday, June 19, 2006

All Good Things Must Pass

There is a movie-watching phenomenon which I refer to as the Unforced Smile. This occurs when you view a film and suddenly realize that you've been smiling for the last 10, 15, 20, 25, who-knows-how-many minutes but didn't even know it. This isn't necessarily because the movie has been funny. It's because the movie has been so damn good you can't help but grin. I was smiling during every last second of "A Prairie Home Companion". It's wonderful - just wonderful - and therefore fairly obvious to say I found it to be far and away the best movie thus far of 2006.

The film is not really an expose into the goings-on backstage at the real Prairie Home Companion. Nor is it a character study of the real Garrison Keillor. This is, however, a Robert Altman movie which makes it very distinct. There is not a great deal of so-called plot. Scenes tend to meander. Altman shoots it very much like a play with long takes and the camera gliding from one actor to another. There is also a lot of singing. I don't ever recall the movie being billed as a musical but it may as well have been. There are ballads and bluegrass tunes and songs about awful jokes and coffee. And they're all glorious, just as they are in real life on the real show. Early in the film Lily Tomlin (half of the delightful singing duo The Johnson Girls with Meryl Streep) says, "Singing is the only thing that keeps my mind right." This speaks for every character in the film. They all need their songs to keep right and this is a night when they desperately need to stay right.

It's the last broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion", a show that's been on the air "since Jesus was in third grade". The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) from Texas is coming into town to close it down and turn the Fitzgerald Theater into a parking lot. On top of that an Angel of Death (Virginia Madsen) is forever hovering in the wings, waiting to take a person or perhaps persons with her.

There are those who will say the movie is about nothing but this could not be further from the truth. This movie is about everything. It is about life and death and facing one own's mortality. But most of these issues are never addressed head-on. They're discussed in short spurts and fits but mostly things simply happen to the characters, the characters react to them, and it's their reactions that give us insight.

The host of the show GK (Garrison Keillor himself) is forever going off on long-winded passages - often stopping in the middle to correct himself - that sometimes last right up until the nanosecond before the show returns to the air. Is he in denial about the show ending? He's not. "I do every show like it's my last," he proclaims at one point. People often say this type of thing but GK is a person who says it, means it and does it.

Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) is the theater's security guard and not only occupied with the show's impending doom but also with the Angel of Death ("her hair is what God had in mind when he said let there be hair"). The singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are forever irritating the poor stage manager. The Johnson Girls share a rapport that is utterly Minnesotan. Listening to them talk was just like listening to relatives and family friends talk during my many trips to Red Wing, Minnesota as a kid. The chemistry between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as The Johnson Girls is simply amazing. It might be the best thing in the movie (and that's saying something). In classic Altman fashion their dialogue overlaps, and then they break into song, and back into dialogue, and so on and so forth.

Meryl Streep's daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) is constantly writing poetry laced with death. ("People hanging themselves with extension chords......things like that.") A word here about Lohan. Everyone else in the cast is marvelous but that pretty much goes without saying. But Lohan - who, of course, gets much attention for her off-screen activities - is excellent. She is pitch-perfect. And I must say I saw a little of myself in Lola. Oh, maybe not in the obsession with death but there were numerous times I found myself as a kid sitting off to the side of adults scribbling in a notebook and dreaming of getting called to the "big stage" to save the adults' bacon at a key moment.

Even the Angel of Death herself has a few questions regarding the subject she represents. It seems she died in a car crash while listening to GK's show years ago. He had told a joke and while she was trying to figure out what made it funny she wound up driving off the road and that was it. Now she wants to know just what made that god-damn joke so humorous.

A key development is an old-time singer who passes away during the late stages of the show. GK won't do a tribute to his passing the same as he won't do a tribute to the show's passing. Lola is the young idealist and confronts him. "I'm at the point where if I start doing eulogies it's all I'd do," he says. The Johnson Girls perform a song honoring him but never say such. Dusty and Lefty sing a seemingly never-ending tune, "Bad jokes - Lord, I love 'em. Can't get enough of 'em." They need to sing to keep their minds right, remember?

The ending is the most poetic moment in the whole film. There are also those who will call the ending ambiguous but it is not ambiguous at all. I won't say anything else than to say it doesn't matter who she's come for since she comes for every one of us eventually.


"If you're happy, be patient - this will pass." - GK

1 comment:

Rory Larry said...

I don't know what movie you saw, but the Robert Altman film I saw was scrambled and hectic and made very little sense. Best movie I've seen this year is still "Brick"