I’ve never quite warmed to Robert Altman, perhaps because 14 is too early an age to watch MASH, and I wasn’t enough of a film nerd (yet) when I saw The Player. Raymond Carver works better for me on the page than on the screen. Even if P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia was an adolescent Short Cuts on too much caffeine, it clicked for me. Altman’s films rarely did so. Yet I’ve always envied the old man his magnificent casts – you rarely get as many high-quality actors in the same film as in Altman’s ensemble pieces.
When I heard of his latest – and, as it turned out, last – film, I was intrigued. I liked the cast, and what little I’d heard of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show (which the film was to be based on), I enjoyed for its whimsy and its gentle irony. (What is usually called irony these days is much closer to facile sarcasm, if you ask me.)
I wasn’t sure from the trailer, though: did this look like the sort of film I’d genuinely like, or was it rather the kind of movie that I felt I should like, and that I’d be too stubborn to admit to be somewhat boring, actually? As a well-meaning cinemaphile, I knew I was supposed to like Altman.
I ended up liking the film a lot. It’s impossible to watch A Prairie Home Companion and not think that Altman was close to death when he made it. Yet it’s not a sombre film. It’s melancholy and wistful, but it’s got a lightness that is quite fitting. Some critics felt it was too hokey and corny in its folksiness. I don’t think that’s quite fair. The film does express sorrow at the passing of a certain kind of radio variety show, and perhaps a certain kind of popular culture, but I think it’s quite aware that the culture it shows may be well past its sell-by date. If there is sorrow, it’s the sort of sorrow that comes with not wanting to let go, even if you know that you will have to. I think it should be permitted to an 81-year old to say: “I don’t want to go, not yet,” which is what the film felt like to me. It’s better to go out when things are still good than to fizzle and fade and vanish, yet bowing out when you wish you could do another show, and another, an eternal farewell, hurts. Altman conveys that pain with gentle, wry humour. I hope that his angel of death had “a smile so sweet you could have poured it on your pancakes.”