' ' Cinema Romantico: Maybe Angels

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Maybe Angels

Early in “Prairie Home Companion” Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) is seated at his desk in the Fitzgerald Theater, futzing around for one thing or another, and director Robert Altman and his cinematographer, Edward Lachman, have positioned their camera behind the desk, peering down a seemingly empty hallway. Except then Guy Noir closes the lid on his omnipresent cigarette tin, which has been resting imperceptibly on the bureau in the shot’s foreground. When he does, it reveals the film’s foremost mysterioso, the “Dangerous Woman” as she is referenced on IMDB, a striking Virginia Madsen in a striking white coat, strikingly ambling down the hallway, right toward Guy Noir. He doesn’t see her at first, but we do. Oh, do we. And the moment, the shot, the implementation of a prop to make way for the reveal, and the song crooning faintly on the soundtrack as it unfolds are a manifestation of cinema’s unmatched power to quietly knock the everlasting bejeezus out of us. Why, I’ve asked myself over the years, does this shot take me up the mountain?

I was raised in a Lutheran household and my family had a particular affinity for the Nativity Story, particularly, I think, because it was just that – a story. A romantic, theatrical, wondrously allegorical story told with grand flourishes that have stayed as indelible in my imagination as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Like, I know how the Emperor Caesar Augustus looks in my mind. My mom’s favorite part was always the angels appearing to the shepherds and their flock by night. “And suddenly,” it goes, “there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.” It’s the suddenness of the angel’s appearance. You’re a shepherd, just doin’ what you do, and boom! There’s an angel and light from just, like, nowhere and WOAH, NELLY! That, to paraphrase modern America’s pre-eminent California cherub, is how angels do. Same thing with Easter and the Resurrection. “Suddenly, two angels in dazzling white clothes were there.” Remember in Acts when poor Peter’s all up in the clink? What happened? “And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And his chains fell off his hands.”

Angels like dramatic entrances, see. Dramatic entrances are a boon when you’ve got stuff you’ve gotta herald. “Hark the herald angels sing,” Charles Wesley wrote. “Joyful all ye nations rise / Join the triumph of the skies.” But then all angels aren’t heralding “the newborn King.” Some angels are heralding are a more somber note. “I am the angel Asphodel,” proclaims “Prairie Home Companion’s” Dangerous Woman. “I come here to do my work and bring mercy into the world and to carry out the Lord’s will and honor His holy name.” Well, Asphodel Meadows was part of the Greek underworld, the place where ordinary souls went to live after their death. And the angel Asphodel’s work, it seems, is to squire people who’s time is up down to those Meadows, whether it’s a guest on the movie’s radio show, whether it’s the man sent to bring the axe down on the radio show, whether it’s the radio show itself.

And I suppose that’s what grants this scene its staying power in my mind. One day you’re just cooling your heels at your desk and thinking of all things you could be doing and could have been doing before now. It's tragic really, passing time by wasting it. Oh well. C'est la vie. You go for a smoke. Suddenly, an Angel is sauntering down the hall in a long shot right at you. Time’s up.

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