Completed just one year before his passing, the tale of the last days of a long-running public radio show seems rather ironic fodder for Robert Altman’s final film. Originally titled The Last Show, the ailing Altman clearly knew this would very likely be his last contribution to the world of cinema, perhaps wanting A Prairie Home Companion to stand as his meditation on his incredible life and impeccable career. While it may not earn the kudos of Altman’s other work, there’s a quiet and gentle charm to his final work that’s only elevated by its standing as a bookend to a glorious filmography.
Always a filmmaker to break away from the more conventional fare, Altman’s choice to deliver a behind-the-scenes look at a fading radio program is certainly an odd one. While the setting lends itself to a whole host of outlandish narrative opportunities, Altman and writer Garrison Keillor keep things decidedly simple yet entirely unfettered. Long stretches of improvised conversation ultimately overstay their welcome, making for a somewhat frustrating experience. The end result is a mixed bag with great performances from its incredible ensemble cast but a narrative that never quite travels anywhere, as Aaron has pointed out in his Filmotomy review here.
But in the context of Altman’s passing, is it perhaps possible the very existence of A Prairie Home Companion is hiding more than meets the eye? Could the film actually serve as a eulogy and tribute to his life and career? With his terminal illness signalling his final days, it seems Altman may have been attempting to create a piece of cinema which tipped its cap to a time gone by, yet also stood as a retrospective of the sometimes unappreciated art he had gifted to the world.
This seems particularly poetic in the parallel between Garrison Keillor’s character and Altman himself. As the cast of the radio show begin to realise this will be their final performance, they beg Garrison to make the show a grandiose farewell. But he’ll hear nothing of it, instead wishing to broadcast the show like as they have every other week. Altman kept his leukaemia diagnosis a private affair. For 18 months, the public were entirely unaware the great director was dying.
There was no press release or big statement. Those closest to him knew, obviously. For insurance and finance purposes, his good friend Paul Thomas Anderson was listed as a “standby director” for A Prairie Home Companion, in the event the ailing director could not finish shooting. But Altman wasn’t about to let anyone else finish this film. He carried on and got the job done, all the while purposely avoiding the public learning this would be his last motion picture. He had always maintained he would never retire and work until death made him stop. Here was his chance to do just that, and do so in the quiet, dignified way he wished.
The temptation to reveal his illness, and thus market this as his final work, would have been there. A few studio execs surely would have pushed the idea. Many narcissistic directors would jump at the chance to receive such gushing adulation over the announcement of their farewell work. But not Altman. He had avoided such follies for years and clearly wasn’t about to start now. He wanted A Prairie Home Companionto exist as something to entertain in the moment, but for some to look back on and discover the hidden context behind its sweet spirit and whimsical simplicity.
Garrison Keillor is a character who perseveres with his deep devotion to his art, despite the world consistently attempting to usher him out. His work isn’t appreciated or celebrated by the masses. But those that know his radio program adore him as a pioneer of the field. And that can be said for Robert Altman too. He was a director who consistently worked, despite the landscape of movies changing rapidly around him. The truest film buff naturally holds him in great esteem, but the average cinemagoer is unlikely to be familiar with his deep impact on the world of cinema. Altman is the Garrison Keillor of the film world.
When the time finally comes for Garrison to exit, he does so without any grandeur or glory. It’s an understated affair, just the way he wishes it to be. And this is precisely Robert Altman’s path with A Prairie Home Companion. It’s far from his greatest work. It’s rarely mentioned when discussion turns to his impressive filmography. And some may consider it a disappointing finale to a truly stellar career. Yet, despite knowing it was his curtain call, Altman never meant A Prairie Home Companion to be anything other than just another week of his own quaint and charming radio show. When you see the film in this light, it’s the perfect goodbye to one of the greatest directors there has ever been.