Let's try a little test. Here are some lyrics and lines of dialogue from the films Cars and A Prairie Home Companion. See if you can tell which came from which.
"No one seems to need us like they did before."
"Bad jokes, man I love them; bad jokes, can't get enough of them."
"Not so very long ago, the world was different."
"You have been a friend to me ..."
"They don't even know what they're missing." "Yeah, well, it didn't used to be like that."
"Every show is your last show. That's my philosophy."
"I'm a one-man show."
"Well, now they can put their lives into something else. That's the beauty of the world: There's always something to put your life into."
Maybe, if you've seen these movies very recently, were paying very careful attention, and are good with deduction, you can ace this test. Regardless, you can at least warm to the formerly improbable idea that these seemingly disparate movies have a lot in common.
A Prairie Home Companion was scripted by the golden-throated NPR raconteur Garrison Keillor, who also stars (inasmuch as a stolid Minnesotan with a perfect face for radio can be a movie star), and is directed by Robert Altman. It loosely dramatizes the making of a regional, charmingly anachronistic radio variety show that's been on the air, as the film's gauche-gumshoe narrator Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) puts it, "since Jesus was in the third grade." The movie confines itself for the most part to Saint Paul's Fitzgerald Theatre, from which the show is broadcast before a live audience. Unlike Keillor's actual show, though, the movie's version of the weekly Prairie Home Companion broadcast is about to get the axe from its corporate overseer and its cozy home turned into a parking lot. Glumly, the performers anticipate a future in which "there won't be anything left on the radio but people yelling at you and computers playing music."
Ironic, then, that Companion's nearest companion piece in the film industry is a marvel of computer animation made by a large, universally influential control-freak corporation, and depicting an entirely inhuman (if highly anthropomorphized) world of machines-a world in which, presumably, cozy homes are parking lots. Which is not to say that Cars is soulless-it's plenty soulful ... maybe more than plenty. Cars was written-uncharacteristically for Pixar-by committee, and directed by the studio's buddy-movie maven, John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug's Life). It's not nearly as desultory as A Prairie Home Companion, but is easily that movie's equal for its high quotient of homespun nostalgia. In Cars, a cocky young cherry-red racecar (voiced by Owen Wilson) gets stuck in a Route 66 town that time forgot, and his sojourn lasts just long enough to teach him what community means (honor, gallantry, easygoing companionship), and how to temper his jones for the racetrack with the romance of the open road. Okay, yes, it's basically Doc Hollywood, but done up real pretty with looker landscapes and sassy 'toonish talking automobiles.
In both Cars and A Prairie Home Companion, heartland values run deep: small communities, well-stocked with eccentrics, become provisional families; homegrown institutions (radio, Route 66) face extinction from the heartless agents of progress (the crass corporation, the marauding interstate) and the overall attitude is that, as long as we all keep our priorities straight, everything will probably be okay.
Both movies seem almost defiantly old-fashioned; custom-tailored with emotive, unabashedly corny musical interludes and the sort of ensemble acting that leaves all performances aglow with that unanimous, just-happy-to-be-here sheen. The two casts appear similarly proportioned. There are the obligatory but excellent veterans (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep in Companion, Paul Newman in Cars), the safe bets (Kline, Wilson), the surprise stereotype-busters (Larry the Cable Guy, Woody Harrelson, both transcending hick-shtick), the unfortunate capitulators (Virginia Madsen, Tony Shalhoub, neither showing as well as possible), the placeholders (Lindsay Lohan, Jenifer Lewis), and so on.
On a microscopic level, A Prairie Home Companion's funny fake ad jingles for biscuits and duct tape work in the same way as Cars's depth-of-detail jokes (where even the houseflies are motor vehicles); riffing on the absurdity of it all, acknowledging both the pleasure and the futility of too-careful inspection. Altman's movie is gratifyingly adept at slipping under the fences between truth and tale; it doesn't matter that Keillor plays himself while other actors play characters (in fact, the conceit both adds a layer of meta-richness and wisely addresses an ugly truth-that Keillor is no actor), or that the Fitzgerald Theatre actually is home to the real Prairie Home Companion show (and isn't soon due to meet the wrecking ball). Likewise, in Lasseter's film, it's immediately irrelevant-yet before long weirdly thrilling-that human needs still dictate mechanical specifications, even where no humans seem to exist.
So there it is-A Prairie Home Companion and Cars are essentially the same film. Who knew? And what does it say about us that we've allowed this?
Certainly, with their variations on a single brand of showmanship-dense nuances planned out to look loose and leisurely-these are two of the most savory movies now in theatres. They are also two of the most elegiac, for what the open airwaves and the open road have in common, beyond their respective thrills of infinite possibility, is the inevitability of dissipation and loss. Eventually the signal falls out of range and fades, or there's more highway behind you than ahead.
Someday A Prairie Home Companion and Cars may be remembered as the varied exemplars of what early twenty-first-century American movies were doing during wartime-escapism of a highly reflective order. For now, though, these films are an ad-hoc school of romanticized regionalism. They signal a collective longing for special places like Keillor and Altman's midwest or Pixar's southwest, and a retrospective appreciation for those places' stalwart specificity. But of course, the more we romanticize them, the more such places all start to look the same.