Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Where The Heart(land) Is

"We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle, and if you should ever feel really happy, be patient, this will pass."

Photo courtesy hallowedground.blog-city.com

On a clear day driving down the Interstate in western Ohio, you can see for miles, the endless rows of corn or soybeans broken by the occasional patch of towering oaks or an adjoining farmhouse. The road underneath the overpass goes ever on, perhaps to a little town that once was the waystation for a whole township (which is how counties are divided out there, with origins in the reference to the "town" and the surrounding "shire"), and now has only a tavern, a church, an antiques market, and a former post office converted to a video rental store.

The midsection of America has been the subject of culture writers on both coasts at one time or another, as if flying over another country on the way to the other side of their own. This curiosity has gathered temporary steam, in light of the release of Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion, a slice-of-life drama set against the backdrop of the Saturday night radio variety show of the same name produced by Minnesota Public Radio. Many of the regulars from the real deal are in the film, as recording artists Robin and Linda Williams and sound-effects wizard Tom Keith share the stage with Oscar-winning actresses Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. Then there is the host of the show, none other than the Garrison Keillor, appearing as "G.K." -- which is to say, as none other than himself.

In an article from Slade magazine, Sam Anderson writes: "Keillor has, through three decades of canny self-marketing, turned himself into a kind of EveryMidwesterner. When he started as a writer and radio host in the early 1970s, America's major regions had all been thoroughly mythologized -— there was Faulkner's Mississippi, Steinbeck's California, and everybody else's New York. But the Midwest was, relatively speaking, a blank slate. Like Faulkner, Keillor invented a fictional territory -- a mythical Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon, 'the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve' -— and dedicated his career to exploring it..." This is the Keillor we all came to know and love, the one which people who romanticize the Midwest believe (from forty thousand feet above it while sipping martinis) has yet to be the victim of his success. In extolling that success, Anderson observes: "And yet the movie made some people crazy with hostility. How has someone so relentlessly inoffensive managed to become so divisive?"

The "people" to whom he refers is none other than Rex Reed, who castigates the movie and its star performer, in the pages of The New York Observer: "It’s like notes for a movie that was never completed, retrieved from a wastebasket and filmed all night in a broadcast studio before the parking meters ran out of quarters... [t]he chronicles of a fictional Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon have now been cloned into a rambling screen fable that is not only corny, lumbering and dull, but also pretentious, because it pretends that a lug-load of tasteless cracker-barrel baloney can pass for 105 minutes of heirloom charm."

Slate is an online magazine founded in Redmond, outside of Seattle in Washington state, and now operates out of Washington city, as well as in New York City, where The New York Observer may safely be found. The truth, like the region in question, is somewhere between the two ends.

I used to listen to PHC quite regularly. At some point, for reasons I will never understand, Keillor moved the show from St Paul, Minnesota, to New York City, and also changed its name, though maybe not in that order, I honestly don't remember. Then he decided that the idea had run its course, and the show bid the airwaves a fond adieu. But after two or three annual reunion specials, Keillor brought back the whole kit-and-kaboodle. In the process, a few people noticed he might have been getting "too big for his britches," as we say out there. But that doesn't stop people from applauding every time he begins his small-town narrative: "Well it has been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon, my hometown..." There was a time when people didn't applaud at that line, but had the decency to wait until the end. Maybe they think Keillor needs the affirmation. Maybe he thinks he does.

What the majority of Midwesterners don't need, however, is for Keillor to use the show to air his views on politics. Oh, there are a fair number of Democrats in the American midsection, most of them in the upper Midwest around the Great Lakes. This as opposed to, say, the Corn Belt states of Indiana or Illinois, at least outside of Chicago. But Midwestern Democrats, at least outside the urban areas, tend to be the union-organizing-small-business-owning-populist variety, as opposed to the New-York-Times-reading-pseudo-intellectuals to whom Keillor seems to ingratiate himself in recent years.

I've even heard a few naughty words eminate from his voice. Mind you, this is on "public" radio, on what might be easily mistaken for a family program!

What Keillor has forgotten, unfortunately, are some key aspects of the Midwestern sensibility.

For one thing, they know to avoid unpleasant subjects like politics and religion amongst their neighbors. If you have to see these people at the grocery store every day and the Moose Lodge one night a week, you have to learn to get along, and you do that by finding out what you can agree with, and make the most of that.

In addition, Midwesterners don't like being alienated by something like entertainment, which is supposed to lighten the daily load, not make you fidget nervously in your seat or provoke deep metaphysical thought. If you want to get into politics, then run for Dog Catcher. If you want to entertain, then keep your bellyaching to yourself and do your song-and-dance already. It's Saturday night, and me and the missus are sitting by the fire to relax, dammit, not be talked down to by some fancypants type who's seen too much of the "bright lights, big city" for his own good.

It's remarkable that, in an age that demands constant sensory stimulation, a radio show can still warm the heart and stir the imagination, and bravo to public radio for at least believing in it. But let's face it, public radio is hurting these days. Many once unique stations, like WETA in Washington and WVXU in Cincinnati, have sold out to the "talking heads" format, as if we don't get enough of that on the AM band. Obviously, they missed what went wrong. What went wrong was, they missed the obvious. Right in front of them. So I suspect the downhill slide will continue, and that in spite of himself, there will be enough of what's good about Garrison Keillor for us to keep the magic alive on a Saturday night.

Alas, it was the non-formula formats that I enjoyed on the long straight road to the homeplace, as I reminisced about a world that once existed in my childhood, and in the stories my parents and grandparents told me. If I didn't have satellite radio in my car these days, I do believe I'd go quite mad.

Either that, or travel by air to keep the damage to a minimum.

But hey, that's just me.

1 comment:

Mr. Nixter said...

Personally, I always chuckled when I read/heard Keillor's trademark statement on the residents of Lake Wobegone, where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”