Lake Wobegon Ungone
A Prairie Home Companion
“Texas,” hisses Garrison Keillor in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. He’s staring himself down in the mirror, putting the final touches on a wardrobe that can’t quite come together. “It all comes down to Texas.”
If you live in Minnesota, you may or not be a fan of Keillor’s 37-year-old variety show, a tribute to the golden era of radio broadcasting and the last guardian of grain belt Americana. Many don’t listen regularly. But the show beats like a beacon across the country, and if you’re like me, and you left Minnesota when it was time to do what you ardently hoped would be great things, you found yourself falling into its schedule like a pulse; you tuned your life to it. We’re lucky, I guess, us Minnesota ex-patriots. Everybody wants a piece of home. Even if only refracted. Even if never to return.
So I know the show pretty well. A Prairie Home Companion, the film, opens on the double delight of the real Mickey’s sidecar diner graced by Guy Noir (played here by Kevin Kline), the gumshoe character misplaced in genial St. Paul streets. I’ve never gone to a live broadcast, so it was my first time seeing radio actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Tom Keith; really, it was my first time seeing Garrison Keillor for more than a blip on the local news. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly gave an appropriately crass performance of Keillor and Russell’s Dusty & Lefty, and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin satisfied my inner gossip with proof (in a Stanley Fish kind of a way) that the dramas and passions and great souls of the musical guests simmer barely unchecked in their banter with the host.
And because I know the show well, and because I’m a Minnesotan, I was primed for the political dissidence. You think A Prairie Home Companion is all about Powdermilk Biscuits and the Chatterbox Cafe and bee-bop-a-ru-bop-a rhubarb pie? You weren’t listening to the show when Keillor mourned the growing dominance of Minneapolis affluence over St. Paul civic responsibility in our compiled portfolio of values. You didn’t hear the anger in the monologues about small towns getting osteoporosis and caving to the mass manufacture of the exurbs, you didn’t hear the jolly and embittered anthem “We’re all Republicans now!” following Wellstone’s death and the subsequent right-wing triumph in our gubernatorial, congressional, and senatorial seats. Following the series of political gut punches in the early aughts, Paul Wellstone, a dead man, is still the most influential progressive in Minnesota.
I kid you the fuck not.
So let me assure you that it’s no accident that in the movie, Tommy Lee Jones’ character “The Axeman” comes from Texas. Let me assure you his profound contempt for entertainment and its purveyors is not just rhetorical flourish. Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor have brought us a film replete with light-hearted cheer, pleasant music, and cinematic elegance, but they have also brought us a cautionary tale worthy of a subversive Scandinavian grandma.
“Sometimes they’d just as soon kill you as look at you, those good people,” mutters chanteuse Yolanda Johnson, ignored and unheard by her daughter, Lola.
Lola. Whither Lola? The only performance I found lacking, Lindsay Lohan’s Lola can’t see the show or its actors as more than a quaint bunch catering to their own set, relics who inexplicably keep going. In the epilogue scene at Mickey’s Diner, her ultimate failure to come through for everything her mother represents is a bit insulting, and has me defending those my age and younger by pointing at those unbelievable mutual fund commercials targeting a generation of self-proclaimed rebels; at the Disney version of the Rolling Stones at last year’s Superbowl. You want to start pointing fingers? You’re going to have to do a little better than “kids these days,” because the happy plunge into ignorance has nothing to do with generational entropy.
This is one of Altman’s best. The swoony pans of the camera while clusters of characters talked through and over each other, the held breaths for a close-up here or there (a bereft Sue Scott watching the fictional ensemble take the stage for the last time was my favorite), the rambling digressions of real life without the monotony of real time. And Keillor served his fans well, though I missed the closing monologue from Lake Wobegon. There were pieces of Wobegon tucked here and there, but no opportunity to escape into the invisible town’s life. It was all show.
Here’s where Lake Wobegon is for me: I’m in Florida, and I don’t have any friends. But Prairie Home Companion’s on at 6 o’clock, so that’s something. I’m in Brooklyn, my basement apartment has no overhead lights; I have no money to go into the city so I’m stretched out on the carpet in the dark listening. Philadelphia, I’m pregnant and on my own, but it’s Saturday, so I’m cooking casseroles and drinking alcohol-free beer with the radio on. It’s not supposed to be my show, right? It’s not for young people.
But here’s a little secret, brought to you by our friends at Powdermilk Biscuits: a lonely soul finds her station. She finds home.