Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold;
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare, Life-In-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
There are many notable cinematic representations of death, the best remembered being the scythe carrying man in black that plays chess with the medieval knight in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This durable representation also makes his way into the comedies of Woody Allen (Love and Death, 1975) and the Monty Python troupe (The Meaning of Life, 1983). Another comedic example is George Coe and Anthony Lover’s short film De Düva (1968), featuring the first film performance by Madeline Kahn. Death has always lurked in the silver screen shadows from the silent days and into the sound era. In Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Death takes time off from collecting souls to see how the other half lives.
The Disney version of death is vividly illustrated in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942). In the Disney universe, death is a powerful force of nature, a storm that takes on human characteristics. Taken as a whole, the films Disney made during his lifetime reflect an almost Pagan point of view towards death. According to Douglas Brode, in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture, “Disney films constantly undermine the Judeo-Christian version of death, ingrained into the American psyche from the Puritan era to the twentieth century.”
Death is often personified in art and literature as a woman; a unique example of this is found in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), a film that relies on traditional myth and the mythos of its maker to reframe the story of Orpheus. According to Cocteau, the film has these three basic themes:
- The successive deaths through which a poet must pass before he becomes…changed into himself at last by eternity.
- The theme of immortality; the person who represents Orphéé’s Death sacrifices herself and abolishes herself to make the poet immortal.
- Mirror; we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.
According to Leilah Wendell’s Historical Personifications, “In many Slavic and Baltic lands, Death appears simply as a woman dressed in white who carried souls to “Vela”, a world shrouded in grey mist and cold.” The “Woman in White” played by Jessica Lang in Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and the “Dangerous Woman” played by Virginia Madsen in Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006) are fair-haired angels of death much like those personified by the Slavic tribes. Angels of death can be found in both the original Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire (1987) and the American remake, City of Angels (1998).
A Prairie Home Companion is the creation of Garrison Keillor, but the cinematic approach to the material is pure Altman. Altman helps Keillor to breathe life into his cast of radio characters and gives them a double life in the process. In front of the microphone, they perform to please a faceless audience. Backstage, they live a life apart. We are allowed to observe and try to put together the pieces of each person’s life through a series of backstage vignettes that unfold in counterpoint to the onstage presentation of an old fashioned radio variety show.
An angel, who calls herself Asphodel, has come to comfort and collect Chuck Akers, an elderly performer who is much loved by audiences and his fellow performers. Asphodel is a flower. According to Wikipedia, “The Asphodel Meadows is where the souls of people who lived lives of near equal good and evil rested. It essentially was a plain of asphodel flowers which were the favorite food of the Greek dead.” Also, the name sounds a lot like Azrael, who is the Angel of Death. Azrael, while not mentioned in the Bible, does appear in other Jewish, Islamic, and Christian texts.
In the film, Ashodel was once human and died while listening to a joke told on the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Apparently, it wasn’t a very funny joke, but her laughter distracted her from her driving. She went off the road, killing herself.
There are many characters in the film that can see Asphodel and suspect her true identity. There is the possibility that she is present to collect additional souls. Guy Noir, the security guard, tries to focus Asphodel’s powers towards the threat of a corporate axe man, named Axeman, who has come to put an end to the show. Out of some attachment to the disembodied radio voices she once listened to as a human, she obliges.
In the end, Asphodel comes to collect another from the cast of characters. Who she will take is left to the imagination. It is obvious that each of the characters fears that their number has come up. Oddly enough, A Prairie Home Companion was the final feature film made by Robert Altman and a somewhat prophetic swan song to a fine film career.