“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
― Mark Twain
A movie bearing the title Penn and Teller Get Killed (1988) has a built-in inevitability which, masters of the perverse and debunkers of tricks and scams that they are, screenwriters/stars/instigators Penn Jillette and Teller would never consider not fully embracing. The movie’s very inertness as a narrative exercise built around an escalating series of deceptions and practical jokes (many of them either derived from or recreated entirely from their live act) seems strangely deliberate too, a willful deflation of the very expectations they themselves have set up.
I’m not sure just how much actual cinema most who managed to see this movie in a theater in 1988 thought they were entitled to, but when I bought a ticket to see it during its brief one-week run in Los Angeles I wasn’t surprised by its halting, lurching, episodic structure, and I more or less enjoyed it. Speaking again of inevitability, that very lumpiness seems a natural byproduct of any attempt to impose a filmed story on P&T’s brand of gasp-inducing hijinks, the sort that work to such breathtaking, wisecracking, yet deadpan effect on stage, where matters of editing and camera tricks aren’t an issue.
Not that Penn and Teller don’t give camera creativity a fair shot. The bit that opens the movie—a talk show appearance in which they use the studio cameras to disguise the fact that they’re seated at a desk upside-down, “levitating” objects through the “magic” of gravity—hints at the ways they might use the techniques of filmmaking to heighten their already ghastly, blackly funny trickery. During the interview that follows, one in which their contempt for the host (and the audience) is barely veiled, Penn feigns exasperation-- or maybe it’s genuine (part of the running P&T joke is that sincerity is almost impossible to discern, and even more unlikely to actually appear)—over how tiresome putting one over on the crowd has become, how blasé their responses to the repeated puncturing of illusion have become. In a typical moment of bombast, he speculates, on national television, how much fun it would be if someone were to actually attempt to kill him and his partner. Their manager (Caitlin Clarke, spewing a curious Mexican accent which eventually morphs into an even less believable Noo Yawk variation) may roll her eyes, but she also sees and dreads the possibilities. It’s an invitation to assassination mounted as pugnacious performance art, and a juicy way to kick off what promises to be a delirium-inducing death dodge of a movie.
Unfortunately, seeing it again 28 years later, after a couple of decades witnessing the sort of wise-assery that is coin of the Penn and Teller realm become that of mainstream pop culture, Penn and Teller Get Killed seems to sputter almost right from the beginning. The theme of the duo out-pranking each other is kicked off with a familiar and funny bit— Teller impishly orchestrates Penn’s blustering, frustrating attempt to pass through airport security. That’s quickly followed by a great gag in which Teller and Penn, working in concert, provoke a coin-throwing scuffle in the middle of an Atlantic City casino. But the movie’s central section, involving the boys’ increased paranoia and disillusionment over having attracted the homicidal intentions of a genuine psycho (David Patrick Kelly), gets quickly bogged down in subplots involving film noir parody—a sequence shot in black and white until, suddenly, it’s not—and the appearance of a policewoman girlfriend for Penn… who looks sort of familiar…
It won’t take long for even the dullest of viewers to sniff out what it takes a cynically prepared illusion deconstructionist like Teller seemingly forever to figure out—he’s being duped, and we see through it, a strange development indeed. Teller doesn’t wise up until it’s too late, which certainly sets up the sour fulfillment of the movie’s titular promise. But by the time one half of our heroes is hanging by his heels upside-down at the mercy of a maniac, a faint reversal of that first gag in which he and his partner were in control, the manic energy powering Penn and Teller Get Killed has been eaten away, like a chocolate Easter bunny with a hollow center-- nothing inside, most definitely not resurrection, the strains of the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” hanging in the air.
The aggressively nihilistic tilt of the movie’s finish might have some bite if what came before were made with anything of the pompous carny glee over the upending of illusionist’s tropes that marks Penn and Teller’s live performances. I kept thinking, upon seeing it again, that the movie needed a magician behind the camera as well, someone like Brian De Palma, whose own cinematic sleight of hand might have meshed well with the macabre irony that is Penn and Teller’s calling card. But somehow Arthur Penn ended up directing the movie, and apart from one Penn directing another there’s not much of interest, certainly not the spirit of foreboding or real danger, or even much sensitivity to black comedy, that one might reasonably expect from the director of Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves.
The closest thing to a lark on Penn’s résumé, Alice’s Restaurant, is still weighted with its voice-of-a-generation convictions, but even a jolt of the lunacy coursing through The Missouri Breaks would have been welcome, if only to shake up the static air within P&TGK’s relatively lifeless frames. Instead, Penn directs like a TV veteran marking time, which might seem like the only other legitimate approach to this material were the end result itself less moribund. Penn and Teller Get Killed, which turned out to be Arthur Penn’s last theatrically released feature, stands as little more than the period at the end of a fascinating career, one which in 1967 set the spark to a great, disruptive decade of American film culture and by the end of that same decade had already begun to settle into faint echoes of its own promise.
It just so happens that my latest encounter with Penn and Teller Get Killed was prompted by my participation in David Cairns’ Late Show Blogathon, which concludes tomorrow at his Shadowplay blog. The blogathon features writing dedicated to examining and celebrating the final films of famous and/or fascinating film directors, and to my eye, P&TGK made for a perfect example of a once-vital director whiling away his working days, taking a project presumably for the sake of keeping occupied (perhaps with the only work available) and failing to invest much of his own personality and concerns in the process, thus ending his creative journey on a decidedly low note.
But when I set to thinking about Penn’s opposite in this regard, a director who was fully engaged and creatively inspired right to the very end of his life, as a filmmaker and on Earth, the first person that came to mind was my favorite director, Robert Altman, and the film that capped his gloriously inconsistent and unpredictable career, A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Based on Garrison Keillor’s only slightly self-conscious throwback to the regional radio variety shows of old, APHC deliberately accesses memories of a near-completely arcane style of programming by calling up faint folkloric echoes of a past that may or may not have even fully existed, at least as anything other than the object of sweet nostalgia. As one character, house detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) observes, Keillor’s show, which at the beginning of the film is about to be ushered permanently into memory by the inexorable march of economic progress, has been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade.” (Or the mid-‘70s, if you value the actual historical record.) The Minnesota theater from which the show has traditionally emanated for all those years has been designated for demolition by a faceless corporation, and what makes up the heart of the film is the salutary last performance by Keillor’s imagined stock company—musicians and actors from the actual Prairie Home Companion stage/radio show intermingled with an impressive roster of actors (including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan, among many others) assembled by Altman.
The movie begins on a shot of a radio tower at dusk, transmitting voices gathered out of the electric mist of memory. This ethereal opening connects APHC with other Altman movies immediately, most obviously the Grand Ole Opry live radio shows that inform Nashville (and Keillor’s original conception of APHC), the beautifully reconstructed broadcasts that punctuate the milieu of 1930’s Depression-era Kansas in Thieves Like Us, and even the cacophony of a.m. radio advertising that kicks off O.C. and Stiggs. But the device also helps make clear that, rather than indulging an empty exercise in prefab nostalgia, Altman’s film will operate on a mournful frequency of its own. And as unlikely and unexpected as it may seem at first, in its themes and even its basic structure it creates a curious link with Penn’s far less personal and compelling farewell.
Both movies, as it turns out, are concerned with death. In Penn and Teller Get Killed, the fascination is superficial, immature, valued only for its ability to shock the presumed bourgeois nature of its audience. (The movie’s meager theatrical and home video audience probably has a far different perspective on itself.) The eventual demise of the entire cast is intended as the grand fulfillment of some nasty cosmic joke. But the punch line has no sting because everything in the movie unfolds in a context in which nothing “real” is ever at stake, where ironic detachment isn’t so much a temporary stance as it is the movie’s lifeblood, a defiant operating philosophy. When the other shoe fails to drop and the bodies remain limp on the floor, we need only imagine that it will do so once the lights come up, Penn’s self-satisfied narration notwithstanding.
The slender thread that connects these dissimilar movies turns out to be their relationship to their central performers. Death in both films is a concern that is framed and colored by the reflection of performances derived and adapted from other media. P&TGK reconstitutes vaudeville stage magic but fails to translate any of its mystery, or even (curiously) much of the satisfaction to be had from its debunking, into cinematic language that manages to address the Grim Reaper with anything more than facile attention .
Altman, on the other hand, reimagines Garrison Keillor’s dense, theatrically presented universe as one that exists perhaps on the other side of a stage mirror, a world which can only adequately be investigated by the curiosity of his roving camera. The difference is that Altman feels the quiet urgency underlying his material. Without sacrificing humor or the joy he takes from this latest permutation of the community of performers he has consistently celebrated, whose world he insists we not just observe but inhabit, Altman allows himself to take the terminal trajectory of his subject very seriously. In APHC, as Keillor and Streep and Tomlin take over the dressing rooms, lofts, wings and eventually the stage of the doomed theater, Altman’s gently probing camera finds its corollary in Virginia Madsen’s visiting angel of death. She roams these same spaces, even inhabiting the backdrops onstage during the show, searching out souls which are quite unaware that they are next to depart the material world, in the same way that the theater itself has no clue its days are numbered.
Some can see this angel, sense her presence, but most cannot. When the singer/raconteur played by grizzled veteran L.Q. Jones retires to his quarters after his big numbers, the angel takes him quietly, and Altman makes plain his purpose. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” says Madsen in a cool attempt to comfort the woman who discovers Jones’s lifeless body. “Forgive him his shortcomings and thank him for all his loving care.” Altman, who knew during production of A Prairie Home Companion (if few else did) that he had only about a year left to live, serves Keillor’s material in the most resonant way possible by fashioning it as his own cheerfully unsentimental goodbye, a valedictory statement on mortality that is in its modest way painfully profound.
But, befitting Altman’s career-long tendency to exalt in folly as well as the need for crucial human relationships, whatever the end result, the 81-year-old wheelchair-bound director nimbly avoids the opportunity to turn the movie into either a narcissistic dirge or, in the manner of Hollywood, a hollow triumph of the human spirit. (Or worse, an empty, cynical joke.) There’s room enough, as it turns out, for plenty of humor and spirited exchange even among the shadows of inevitability, as evidenced by the movie’s loving, irony-free recreations of Keillor’s deadpan tales and familiar folk tunes, some of which have been refashioned into dryly hilarious jingles for products you just can’t do without. (“Powdermilk Biscuits, in the big blue box.”) Such generosity is APHC’s primary currency, and Altman spends it well.
The movie ends on one of the most gracefully sorrowful of all movie codas, so graceful that even the melancholy it inspires can’t fully dampen the happiness generated by the movie’s love of performance and performers—another consistent Altman trait that links him with the forgiving, unflinching humanism of Jean Renoir. The final show that has made up the film we’ve just seen is months past, and the central cast members, Keillor, Guy Noir (Kline), the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Streep) and Rhonda (Tomlin) have gathered in a booth at Mickey’s Dining Car for a reunion of sorts, with ribald cowboy songsmiths Dusty and Lefty (“The Pachelbels of the Prairie, the Brahmses of the Bunkhouse”) seated at the counter. After some relaxed catch-up chatter and a visit from Yolanda’s daughter (Lohan), who has since the end of the last show apparently become an investment counselor-- she advises poor clueless Mom on her retirement portfolio—there’s a cut to a view from the inside out through the rain-spattered window of the dining car.
A subtle evocation of the reflections that have played such an integral part in Altman’s visual poetry over the years (think The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould aimlessly staring at the surf while inside the beach house Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt argue), the group gathered in the booth can be seen reflected in the window. And just as we registered the double meaning of the neon sign shining “Checks Cashed” into the night, Madsen’s angel of death appears once again from the left of the frame, gazes into the restaurant, sees the group and moves frame right toward the entrance to the diner.
There are a couple of cuts to the friends chatting, oblivious to the presence of the figure who has once again made her presence into their lives. She continues to stand silently at the door, watching, and they finally see her. The camera, again assuming her point of view, or at least her observing nature as it has throughout the film, moves in slightly. The four of them are obviously uneasy to be seeing her now—Guy Noir tries to catch her eye, to draw some indication from her as to who it is she’s there for. But she never speaks.
She only moves toward them, the stationary camera watching her as she overwhelms the frame.
A cut to the exterior of the diner, the camera slowly craning up, heavenward…
and dissolving slowly…
…back to the movie’s central image of heaven, the performing stage…
…where we will last glimpse the actors and musicians, in their graceful element, before the credits roll.
That Altman could choreograph this moment of reckoning and bliss as his deliberate valedictory to film and to life ought to put a smile on the faces of everyone who has ever cherished the great moments and great movies, and even the less-than-great ones he and his talented collaborators created over the course of a 40-year career as a director. In its terms of clear-eyed summation, love of life and acceptance of what will visit us all (sans the familiar synthetic comforts), Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion might just qualify for me as the best movie farewell ever made.