Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On A Prairie Home Death

Some time ago I wrote a review of A Prairie Home Companion, (the movie, not the radio show). You can find it here.

I watched it again a couple of days ago and it's been on my mind ever since. It's an honest and profound movie that deals with the ever-important issue of death. Ultimately, that's what the movie is about. The plot centers loosely around the final show before cancellation. A character dies. Another character is already dead and is coming to bring peace to the dying. There's plenty of philosophical musing on death and how we react to it. And it's the last film Robert Altman did before he died. There's just no way to watch this move and not think about death.

What's truly remarkable though is that A Prairie Home Companion isn't like most "deep" movies, that sort of reference or represent an issue and then pass by it. APHC doesn't just make you aware of death as an issue, but it actually helps viewers to think broadly and deeply about dying. And, as any good discussion of death should do, it also leads you to think broadly and deeply about living.

Garrison Keillor's humor - dark, droll, succinct, almost unexpected - is perhaps the ideal medium for examining death. Take this little exchange for example:

Lola: What if you die some day?
GK: I will die.
Lola: Don't you want people to remember you?
GK: I don't want them to be told to remember me.

It might not read funny, but to hear Garrison Keillor say it evokes one of those "it's funny because it's true" responses. You smirk first. And then you start to think. There's an awful lot packed into those lines:

The power of death's inevitability,
The acceptance of the same,
Wonder about how our deaths will be viewed by others,
That we care deeply about how they'll think about us,
And, in that ultimate stoic response: the fact that we care deeply that they do think about us.

All of those are topics that a person could ruminate on for quite a while, but they're all wrapped up quickly in a couple of lines before Keillor heads out to sing another jingle about powder milk biscuits or rhubarb pie. And in that "the show goes on" element we find the greatest response to death: living. It evokes St. Francis' great answer to the question "if Christ were coming today, what would you do?" Francis, who was working in his garden at the time, answered "I'd keep hoeing." Keillor's answer has that same beauty.

I don't know that I have too much to add to the depth of the movie itself. It's really a pretty comprehensive take on the subject. I'd love to sit down with a class sometime and just listen to what everyone takes from it; there's just so much there.

What I have gotten out of the film is an almost graceful acceptance of death and an urging to love life while it's here. Really, a pretty fantastic message. And a philosophy that I embrace wholeheartedly.

I figure it's fitting to go out, like the movie, on one of Keillor's greatest quotes:

"They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by just a few days."

In the sweet by and by
Will shall meet on the beautiful shore


Krista said...

Haven't seen it (when it came out someone told me it was depressing instead of funny) But your blog makes me want to :) It's going to the top of my "to rent" list

Matthew B. Novak said...

You'll enjoy it. Fantastic music, amazing actors, tons of jokes piled on top of each other, Keillor's dry wit and Altman's ability to capture life-as-it-happens. Plus, Minnesota.