“The Death of an old man is not a tragedy.”
These galvanic words, spoken by Virginia Madsen’s white-clothed Dangerous Woman, beautifully signifies how A Prairie Home Companion marks a thoughtful and classy wave goodbye by one of the cinema’s greatest voices. Robert Altman exemplified fluidity, the ever changing movement of his zooms, overlapping dialogue, and layered mise-en-scene all flowing in the same cinematic universe, a raging river of words and images. A Prairie Home Companion celebrates all of these aesthetics, but separates itself from the rest of the Altman cannon through it’s kind and joyous representation of artistic collaboration, an ode to improvisational art and and the people that made and make radio a unique medium. The film is a shining example of Altman at his most playful, and if he was going to make a last film, I’m glad this was it.The performances of A Prairie Home Companion are all first rate, especially the tandem of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, with Lindsey Lohan even getting a moment or two to shine. Watching all of these talents, from John C. Reilly to Woody Harrelson to L.Q. Jones in a short but stunning turn, makes me miss Altman even more. His films are definitely hit or miss, the hits thankfully outweighing the miscalculations (I still think The Gingerbread Man is one of the worst). But even in his worst moments, Altman wants to address a distinct parallel between voice, sound, and image no other director dared to visually discuss. Altman’s examples, whether it be the hypnotic blizzards of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the silences of Gosford Park, all desired to facilitate time and space as a tight movement toward a narrative epiphany, characters beginning to realize strengths and weaknesses without judgement. All the talk, the camera movements, and set design, mesh together to cue the characters themselves to shifts in identity and progress, one of the reasons Altman’s actors create such distinct people on the screen. The actors were undoubtedly learning more about themselves as they worked.Robert Altman, one of the greats, will be missed, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know how much. Thankfully, A Prairie Home Companion will always remind us why.