This is edited from last post to focus more on Rob Altman than Prairie Home Companion:
As the recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars this past March, the late director Rob Altman (Nashville, MASH) received a temporary spotlight which made his next film A Prairie Home Companion that much more eagerly anticipated but due to the laws governing summer 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, the audiences of today responded to the film with confusion and disappointment.
Since the start of his career, however, Altman has often been a figure who’s been misunderstood by critics, contemporaries, investors, and the public alike. In the case of Prairie Home Companion, the biggest misconception was that it was that it was a film about Garrison Kiellor and his popular Midwestern radio show, but the beauty of the film is how the director isn't taking us behind the scenes of the Midwestern radio show as much as he's using radio show host to tell his own story.
The plot of the film centers around an axe man from a corporation that has just brought the radio show and travels to the theater to shut it down at the end of the night’s broadcast.
While the rest of the show’s cast is insistent 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 like any other show.
“Retirement, you’re talking about death, right?“ Altman once said and he clearly meant that. 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 “life goes on” attitude was so pervasive that he carried that trademark to his films, refusing to abide by the traditional Hollywood ending. Films like The Player or McCabe and Mrs. Miller are jarring in how they end their stories with so little resolution as bad guys and good guys get handed their fates alike
More than just a premature death notice, Altman uses Prairie Home Companion as a springboard for his own contemplations on life, art, and death during his twilight years. Those familiar with the director that helped usher American cinema into a new era in the 1970s and has had a few dry streaks in his career since, might be able to draw connections between Kiellor's character and Altman as two artists who might be considered acquired tastes and who are past their prime.
Most of the current generation of moviegoers are probably unaware of how Altman’s style of overlapping dialogue influenced fast paced dramas or how his ensemble pieces have influenced multi-storylined films like Traffic or Syrianna.
In the film, 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 about two penguins that she didn’t get, but laughed 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, Rob Altman has not always been understood or successful, but he has methodically kept making films just the same and the many people who “laughed” with his work will be sorry to see him go.