Saturday, June 17, 2006
Piece of the Pie
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.