A Prairie Home Companion, Walter Reade Theater, 11/27/06

There's a moment in A Prairie Home Companion, the last movie Robert Altman made before he died last week, when someone says, 'The death of an old man is not a tragedy." When the movie was released last summer, before it was publicly known that Altman was dying of cancer, that was a bit of offhand philosophy. At last night's memorial screening it carried an extra charge: Hey -- he's talking to us! Altman got to speak at his own funeral.

At another point Meryl Streep says, "I just love a happy ending," and the line plays as irony, because the film makes clear that, if you keep the camera rolling long enough, there is no such thing as a happy ending. Altman was particularly good at strange, complicated endings -- A.O. Scott began his remembrance with a discussion of the shocking end of California Split, in which the mystical energy that has propelled the protagonists and powered the entire film suddenly and momentously dissipates, like the air whooshing out of a balloon, and then the credits roll.

Artists always struggle with endings, but they rarely get to struggle (in a conscious-artistic-intent way) with the ending of their careers. For some, death comes as a surprise; for others, the illness that makes it predictable also prevents them from making artistic use of it; others find their efforts thwarted by the waning of their artistic powers. Altman, it now turns out, is the rare exception; the only other serious example I can think of offhand is Shakespeare. For his last movie, Altman took a radio show whose appeal is its insistent timelessness, and he added the element of death and made it into a tragedy. At the end of the film, the show has been cancelled and the stars are sitting in a diner talking about a reunion tour the same way they sing about heaven: joyfully, sincerely, but not literally. It is, in a way, miraculous that a man who got to make so many movies and so few compromises should have been able to approach even his own ending this way: with a thorough understanding of his situation, with all his artistic faculties intact, and with a circle of brilliant collaborators to carry him out. It's almost a happy ending.