Goodbye To A Giant
Altman's best films, including his masterpiece Nashville and his best-known film M*A*S*H, were completed many years ago. But Altman always seemed to be working, always turning out something new. The Internet Movie Database lists 87 TV or movie projects that he directed going back to 1951, and he wrote or produced many more. Not every film he made was bold and daring, or even in some cases particularly good, but even late in his career he could still turn out a great one now and then, like 2001's Gosford Park.
I won't go into a long tribute here, but I do want to mention a scene that sticks out in my mind from what turned out to be his last movie, A Prairie Home Companion. Stop reading here if you don't want the ending spoiled. The film is based on the NPR radio program of the same name. Although the movie is ostensibly a tribute to Garrison Keillor's long-running variety show (a show I happen to like, although I admit it's an acquired taste), it's really a movie about loss and the wispy, ephemeral nature of all the things we cling to. Most of the story takes place during the fictional final broadcast of Keillor's weekly program. During the movie Virginia Madsen flits in and out as the Angel of Death, who we ultimately learn has come to claim one or possibly more of the movie's characters before the night is out. In the end the final show is completed and the program comes to an end so that a Texas corporation (subtle, eh?) can demolish the theater.
The last scene is particularly haunting. A year after the final broadcast a group of regular cast members is sitting around a table in a diner, reminiscing about the old days, enjoying each other's company and batting around the idea of trying to revive the show in a new form. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the Angel appears in the doorway. They see her but say nothing, and she stand quietly and looks at them for a few seconds, then silently walks toward the table as the screen goes dark. We are left to ponder which of the characters she had come for.
How fitting that this was the great director's last scene. Who exactly was the Angel of Death coming for? In the commentary track on the DVD Altman says he thinks (although he doesn't seem sure) that she's coming for Kevin Kline's detective Guy Noir. But now, upon further recollection, it is clear to me. Obviously, she was coming for everyone at that table. And Altman himself. And us. Like all great artists Altman ultimately didn't offer instructions or answers, only truth. He will be missed.