Saturday, June 17, 2006

Piece of the Pie

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I went with gf and some friends to see "A Prairie Home Companion" last night, partly because I'm an Altman fan, partly because the cast of the movie is terrific. Like many people, I have always had ambivalence about the Garrison Keillor radio show. On the one hand, "A Prairie Home Companion" kept me company long nights on the road ever since college, and made many a Saturday on a dark stretch of highway less dreary. I've listened to Garrison Keillor croon while driving from Central Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, New Jersey to New Hampshire, Miami to Kentucky, North Carolina to Chicago, and Chicago to Boston, as I chased my life and ran away from it at the same time. For decades I've thought pretty much the same thing about the show, which is that it is a time capsule of sorts--not of the twenties or thirties or forties, which is what Keillor strives for, but of the eighties, with its nostalgia for a trumped-up version of the American past. Keillor's nostalgia for normative America (don't let the so-called "characters" of Lake Wobegon fool you) has always set my teeth on edge. There's never a poor part of Lake Wobegon. Nobody talks about trying to ignore the bad smell of some kids on the bus who live in dysfunctional families where clothes don't get washed too often. Nobody's father is sleeping with them. No families are kicked out of their houses for falling behind on mortgages or rent.

In Lake Wobegon, hostility is a character trait, not a product of class despair. Nobody get's knocked around by dad, or verbally humiliated by mom. There are no gay people, no transgender kids, no wives who leave their husbands and take up with butch female taxi drivers. Nobody finds out that their high school boyfriend is sleeping with their best friend, or that people who you think are your friends are secretly laughing at you. Nobody sends his family out to buy groceries one afternoon and blows up his garage, and himself with it. Nobody gets drunk and lights themself on fire in the middle of town.

But these things really happen in small-town America. At least they did when I was growing up. Nowadays you could add a story about a neighbor with a meth lab, I guess, but the texture is the same. I know that Keillor is smart--very smart--but where's the pain of the smart kid who sees too much? There are no Joycean epiphanies in Lake Wobegon. Nobody feels things too deeply, or thinks too much. This is a radio show. All growing pains, joys, lusts, and betrayals can be sublimated by eating a big, fat, juicy slice of rhubarb pie. I know there's something dark in that, but we are never allowed to dwell much on it. As Sam Anderson points out in Slate's "A Prairie Home Conundrum: The Mysterious Appeal of Garrison Keillor," it's hard to know exactly what Keillor wants to satirize and what he wants us to feel fond about. "Keillor's humor has always been a bit of a puzzle," Anderson writes. "What is its irony/sincerity ratio? Is he mocking Midwesterners or mocking the rest of us via Midwesterners?"

Anderson's query about whether Keillor is satirizing Midwesterners or satirizing "us," while important, fails because it has already fallen into the Prairie Home Trap; on Keillor's radio show, we accept these Midwestern types as real BECAUSE we are so different from them. The "us" we become as we listen yearns for the simple earnestness of the Minnesota Lutheran, the prosthetic normativity of the Lake Wobegoner troubled by little more than long winters and vague regrets. Nobody gets queerbashed or race-baited in Lake Wobegon. Nobody gets turned down for pie.

And this "us" is insidious, bearing a distinct resemblance to the "us" whose wealth needed to be protected so as to trickle down in the Reagan Revolution, the "us" whose country needed to go to war under the Bushes, the "us" so eager to be mainstream that we allowed the legacy of a sexually and economically transformative social revolution to shrivel into gay marriage. As the comic strip Pogo famously pointed out, the enemy is us. And this creeping identification with the very values we should be trying to change is what probably makes many of us so cross--at him, at ourselves, at a life that isn't fair-- when Keillor croons seductively at us over the radio. Not Rex Reed cross, perhaps, but cross nonetheless.

The Altman movie is a little different. There, the singing sister act on the radio show is two middle-aged women on the edge. The Garrison Keillor character is an absentminded, logorrheic Lothario. People die and tell dirty jokes. I liked the Altman movie better than the radio show because there was a little more darkness there, not just in the places you were supposed to find it, like the dead guy and the angel of death and the love affairs that end badly, but in the simple sadness of the Johnson Sisters, played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who in one strangely amazing scene, sing a sappy song about their dead mother that is deeply affecting. Their sagging faces and sad eyes reveal identities still traumatically tied to the little girls they were when they sang to cheer up a mother scrubbing floors. They still see themselves as these people, but what we see are two Baby Janes without the camp irony, connecting with the emotional part of themselves that still feels real and can only be brought out in song. It's a cliche that the performer is only alive when she is performing, but in this case Streep and Tomlin infuse the cliche with real pathos and believeability.

Their sadness is almost without dignity, because life goes on, and you are supposed to move on with it, and they really haven't. This attachment to a dead way of feeling that is nevertheless deeply alive for them in the present is a great metaphor for the whole project of "A Prairie Home Companion," and Altman gets this. He shrewdly lets his movie add a dark shadow of satire to Keillor's mythic Midwest, with its vaudeville circuit, roaming performers, and little restaurants where diners ward off modernity by eating pie, making biscuits, and singing gospel songs in the midwestern twilight.

Ah, the mythic Midwest. Just thinking about its wholesome values makes me want to take the fifteen minute drive down to what the Chicago visitor's bureau refers to as the North Halstead Business District, but everyone else calls Boystown, toss down a couple of shots, and tuck a dollar bill or two in a dancing boy's gold lame shorts. On the same street is a diner where all the poor gays go to eat before going out to the bars, and where all the drunk gays go to sober up after the bars close at night. They serve pie, too, but gf and I aren't really big on desserts.


Hilaire said...

Ah, what a lovely post...I really like your take on the insidious nature of the "us", which is so true in so many contexts, including gay communities. There's a Canadian equivalent to A Prairie Home Companion - it's called The Vinyl Cafe, and it airs on the CBC. I really relate to your post because I've always felt *very* similarly about it - part of me likes its folksiness, its tales of cranky guys' relationships with their cats, and I associate it with with pleasant weekend morning rituals. BUT it always makes me impatient for much, much more - the people it refers to and addresses are, as you say, such a narrow slice of this Canadian life. I always sort of want to scream at it, even as I listen and smile. (For what it's worth, Ellen Degeneres's TV show makes me feel similarly impatient and screamy.)

Oso Raro said...

Nice work here! Some of your pensées made me think of _Boys Don't Cry_ and the Brandon Teena story, the dark heart of l'Amerique profonde, which many of us (we?) LGBT folks know like the back of our hand. I recently reviewed BDC for a class I am teaching, and what set me on edge for the entire film was not knowing the horrible ending, but the symbolism of violence and dispair, and the inherent danger of the many moments in the film. You want to grab Brandon's hand and run away to OZ (or Boys Town, or the Castro, or Chelsea, or anywhere but [t]here). Matthew Sheppard is another primary example of the dangers of the liminal spaces of LGBT people in the heartland. The boozing, casual violence, and horror of life in (parts of) heartland America, which is a state of mind as well as a real place, are the siren call for many LGBT to flee to our urban niches, but we bring the memories with us, of that other America which rarely finds a voice in our popular culture (and when it does, tends to be unproblematically class-ified as the spinning and toiling of poor people; to return to Brandon Teena, yes, his killers were crazy mo'fo methhead types, but his death was set into motion by the inaction of the police chief, the symbol of governmential power and authority, in other words NOT marginal poor violence exclusively, but that sanctioned by the state and therefore by society).

One of the most striking aspects of the Prairie Home Companion phenomenon is not necessarily its halcyon vision of an undefinable and fuzzy past of goodness, hope, and wholesomeness, but the fact that people don't recognise it as a representation, a fantasy. People actually think this shit is true! And in that mistake, there are consequences in politics, society, and culture. However, if I were to be cynical, I would say the American people will always choose a rose-tinted fantasy over hard-edged reality, and then wonder what the hell happened when the house collapses on their heads. Some LGBT folks and activists like to point out that we live everywhere, in the heartland as well as our urban ghettoes, as if this is some sort of honourable thing. Well, *other* LGBT folks can pioneer the straight heartland, while I will be joining you in a drink down in Boystown, thankful I personally have the freedom and financial wherewithal to make the choice to remove myself from the shitty reality that is normative, mainstream, heartland America. Elitist? In their words of our esteemed leader, who actually stole it from cinematic cheerleaders, "Bring it ON!"

What we really need is a fund to help bring our diasporic brothers and sisters into our (somewhat) safe spaces. Let's write HRC! Just think, not only will LGBT people then have a strong electoral voice concentrated in the cities, and have kick-ass Pink Patrols in sequins and hooker heels to beat the shit out of the bashers, and rules against heteronormativity in our spaces and businesses ("PLEASE! We don't care what you do in private, but keep your disgusting sexual habits to yourself"), but also the dating possibilities will bloom! This is my own fantastical "Ghetto Apartment Companion." But, as you say so eloquently, this would never fly with those: "so eager to be mainstream that we allowed the legacy of a sexually and economically transformative social revolution to shrivel into gay marriage." The lesson here, of course, is how normal is normal? In my mind, LGBT people will never, ever be normal in a way that satisfies the blood lust of the barbarians at the gate, at least in this country where lessons must always be learned the hard way. But this, I admit, is a polemic position.

App Crit said...

Well, I wasn't going to take in the film, but now I just might give it a see. Thanks, Sfrajett. I've always liked Altman, too, but wondered if perhaps he's skipped the groove on this one. 'Prarie Home Companion' has always been somewhat revolting.

To me, an immigrant, 'Prarie Home Companion' presents a distilled counterpoint within the paradoxical American identity. It is just what America isn't at all. But it's what many wish it to be. PHC is a naïve collage constructed on historical and historicizing revisionism that is indeed very Reaganesque. (On the other hand, the Thatcher era, if remarkable for anything positive, embraced a similar historicizing nostalgia initially, but quickly moved beyond the ashes of its failure, smoldering in the South Atlantic. That didn't happen in Reagan/Bush1 America.)

Yet, the reality of the upper Midwest is rather different. The social egalitarinism that Scandavians hold with pride is replaced by Keillor with a love of sameness: his show is an encomium for narrowly constructed homogeneity. Where is the spirit of populism so endemic to the region?

To those who've actually traveled America (maybe Keillor hasn't, instead just visiting theaters where his show becomes *that* America), the show is absurd. But, it is becoming clearer that more and more, in office even, want that America realized.

I used to think PHC was Keillor taking the mickey out of the urban literati of America, who've often no experience with rural America's reality, but now I see PHC as something slightly sinister. And especially so as the show is imbued with the artifice of the past, as in the once clever and now hackneyed advert parodies, yet the reports from Lake Wobegon deliberately occupy a timeless mythological present. Sinister.

If indeed it presents this America that isn't, this socially conservative and stunted America, then why is the show's principal and well devoted audience the typical, well educated, middle class listerners of NPR who otherwise self-identify as left-of-center, Blue State types?

If Altman's film exposes PHC for what it isn't, then I'll surely give it a see.


Sfrajett said...

Well, I'm not sure Altman takes it far enough, because it seems entirely possible to watch the whole movie and see it as a tribute to PHC. But the movie is odd. Really, it's just not quite right. And you can see this as sloppy, which it is, a little bit, and you can see it as nutty, which it also should be. The film makes the whole PHC project kind of hallucinogenic, which it is, or should be. But any critique is fairly subtle, and what's most sinister isn't Altman's take, I think, but the inherent malevolence of the whole PHC enterprise.

But Streep, Tomlin, and Harrelson are just fun to watch.

Andygrrl said...

Thanks for this post. I love the way you write.

I'm a queer native of Missouri and it's just a bizarre space to inhabit. You're constantly caught between Keillor-esque romanticization and crude stereotypes of moonshining toothless Ozark hillbillies. And gay media and culture is incredibly regionalist. They might as well be on a different planet sometimes. I'm in complete agreement with you about gay marriage, but as far as I can tell "the legacy of a sexually and economically transformative social revolution" that was queer culture of the 60--80s: that never happened here. Being openly pro-gay marriage, in my neck of the woods, is subversive and radical.

I don't know. It's all too messed up and confusing. Sometimes I think this country is too big.

Still, it's my goal in life to move to Chicago as soon as possible.

Sfrajett said...

I agree that gay marriage is also radical in most parts of the country--that's what's so strange about it. On the other hand,it also makes gay relationships palatable to a lot of families, and that's got to count for something, too. And also make us a bit jumpy, I hope. I hope you get to come to Chicago soon!