The barely-there plot focuses on PHC's fictional final show. With Lola, a youngster obsessed with suicide (a wooden Lindsey Lohan) and an angel of death character (a creepy but robust-looking Virginia Madsen), Altman's film at first seems like a meditation on death -- until you realize it's about the conscious avoidance of it.
This difference becomes apparent deep in the second act, when young Lola asks Keillor (who has written himself into the film) why he refuses to say a few words on air about a beloved performer who has just died backstage. Keillor's fictional self replies, "I'm of an age when if I started to do eulogies, I'd be doing nothing else." It's not eulogies Keillor wants to avoid, though. Ever since it first aired, PHC has been one nonstop eulogy to a way of life that died with the rise of the suburbs. Keillor likes eulogies -- he just likes the kind where everyone talks about how someone lived without ever once remarking on how he or she died. If these folks still exist in our fond memories, his thinking goes, then there's no need to acknowledge their deaths. In Keillor's chosen form of remembrance, every day becomes sunny, every sinner becomes a saint and every transient feeling in this world becomes everlasting. It's the quintessence of nostalgia. And no one does nostalgia like Garrison Keillor.
Thus, in both its forms, A Prairie Home Companion chronicles our continual retreat into reminiscence. We don't want to admit that the fog of memory is a gauze that obscures the past. Keillor himself has the good sense to rest these anxieties on his own fictional shoulders. When everyone else backstage is a mess, maudlin with the loss of friends and the show they love, it's his character who plays the unflinching captain, rousing everyone to right the good ship PHC and perform as though this night were like any other. Keillor gives us Madsen's angel of death not to show us our mortality but to hint at how he's spent three decades dodging the topic.
Thus he becomes his own postmodern anti-hero, superimposed on a pre-modern radio show, and although he knows it probably isn't healthy to deny death her voice in the dialogue, he can't stand to turn the mic on. Prairie Home Companion isn't a great film, but it is, at times, a fascinating one. (Rated PG-13)
In a national broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor will tell Lake Woebegon stories from WSU's Beasley Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 7, at 3 pm. Visit www.beasley.wsu.edu or call (509) 335-1514.