Quick Answer: Released shortly before Robert Altman's death, A Prairie Home Companion is an understated meditation on the end of Altman's life and career. "Retirement — you're talking about death, right?" Altman once said. The director had been diagnosed with cancer 18 months prior to his death but did not make the information public and continued working until the end. Altman uses the film for twilight contemplations on art and mortality.
In 2006, cinema experienced an enormous loss with the passing of director Robert Altman. As the recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars the previous March, Altman (best known for films such as 1975's Nashville and 1970's MASH) received a temporary spotlight, which built up anticipation for his next film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). However, with a summer release date sandwiched between highly publicized blockbusters, that anticipation didn't lead to much of an audience at the box office. While critics hailed it as among the summer's best films, contemporary audiences responded to the film with confusion, indifference and disappointment.
Since the start of his career and despite his status as one of cinema's best-ever directors, Altman's work has frequently been met with misunderstanding by critics, contemporaries, investors and the public alike. In the case of A Prairie Home Companion, the biggest misconception was that it was a film about Garrison Kiellor and his popular Midwestern radio show. The beauty of the film, in fact, is how Altman doesn’t take us behind the scenes of that show so much as use the radio show host to tell the meta-story of Altman’s own last film.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
The plot centers around an ax-man from a corporation that has just bought the radio show, who travels to the theater to shut it down at the end of the night's broadcast. While the rest of the show's cast insists that Kiellor use the opportunity of this last broadcast to say goodbye to the audience and thank them for listening, Kiellor shrugs it off saying that he wants his last show to go on like any other show.
Likewise, Altman resists any grand fanfare to announce the close of his cinematic career. "Retirement — you're talking about death, right?" Altman once said; the two were clearly indistinguishable for the director. Altman had been diagnosed with cancer for 18 months prior to his death but did not make the information public. Instead, he went to work directing Companion and joked during his acceptance speech at the Oscars that he had at least 40 good years left due to a recent heart transplant.
Altman's understated "life goes on" attitude carried over into the structure and philosophy of his films, as well. For example, the director refused to adhere to the traditional Hollywood ending and instead presented a world that never resolved into neat and easy conclusions. Films like The Player (1992) or McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) feature jarring endings with little resolution, as bad guys and good guys alike get handed their fates.
More than just as a meditation on his coming death, though, Altman uses A Prairie Home Companion as a springboard for his twilight years contemplations on life, art and mortality. Those familiar with the great director who helped usher American cinema into a new era in the 1970s (even if he had some dry streaks at later points in his career) can draw connections between Kiellor's character and Altman as two artists who could be considered acquired tastes past their prime yet still continue to speak profoundly to many today.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Most of the current generation of moviegoers are probably unaware of how greatly Altman's style influenced today's cinematic landscape. Altman perfected the technique of overlapping dialogue that is so prevalent in today's fast-paced dramas and comedies alike, and his multi-strand ensemble pieces paved the way for the multiple intersecting storylines of popular later films like Traffic (2000), Magnolia (1999) or Syrianna (2005).
In A Prairie Home Companion, an angelic figure played by Virginia Madsen visits the set during its last broadcast to ask Garrison Kiellor a question she's been preoccupied with: she once heard him tell a joke about two penguins that she didn't get but laughed at anyway. She asks him what exactly it was that made the joke funny. Kiellor's surprising response is that he doesn't really know why the joke is funny, either, but maybe it was funny because she laughed.
Like the joke about the two penguins, Altman has not always been fully understood or appreciated, but he has methodically kept making films just the same. The gently elegiac A Prairie Home Companion is a fond farewell to those film lovers who laughed.