' Cinema Romantico: Lutherans Rejoice!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Lutherans Rejoice!

Many is the number of years I have been a listener of the NPR program “Prairie Home Companion” – created and hosted by Minnesota's own Garrison Keillor. Being a Minnesotan himself my dad was a devoted listener long before me and so our household radio was often tuned into “Prairie Home Companion” at 5:00 on Saturday nights. It got to be a tradition. In fact, this Saturday what I want you to do is stop whatever it is you're doing at 5:00 PM, pause, and just feel. I'm serious here. Don't speak - don't do anything - just drink in the ambiance the world is providing. It’s odd but “Prairie Home Companion” feels exactly like what you will experience at that moment.

Truly, it’s the last of its kind. It’s an old-time radio drama that would not have been out of place in the 30’s or 40’s. There are sketches, there are fake commercials (the Ketchup Advisory Board), there are live musical acts, and, of course, there is Keillor’s weekly monologue The News from Lake Wobegon. To hear it is to hear an absolute master storyteller at the height of his power. It’s a different kind of humor – something lost in today’s world of sarcasm and cynicism and artifice. He tells jokes about the people of Lake Wobegon but they are all rooted in empathy. He loves these people. And the way he can slow down, use a pause, and make you hang on every single last word he tells is downright amazing.

Even after leaving home I continued to turn into Keillor’s show as often as possible (though it’s usually put on hold during college football season). It always brings me a feeling of peace and a reminder of home. And these are reasons why I was quite nervous when I initially learned there was going to be a “Prairie Home Companion” movie.

How can a radio drama function as a movie? When you listen to a sketch such as, say, The Adventures of Guy Noir, you form a picture in your head of everything and everyone. How could images on a movie screen possibly live up to the images I have in my head? I don’t actually know what Keillor’s actors and sound effects man look like and I’m not sure I want to know. I have seen Garrison Keillor (last year I saw him up close and in person at the St. Paul zoo – what a thrill!) and the old adage “a face for radio” is admittedly sort of true with him. This isn’t to say he’s horrifyingly grotesque man, he’s just not Brad Pitt (or even the ex-Missouri Basketball Coach).

But as I began to read more about the film the more fears subsided. It started when I became aware that Keillor himself would be writing the screenplay. Thank God! No one else could possibly understand the world that is “Prairie Home Companion”. Those unfamiliar with his writing should become acquainted immediately. The obvious choice would be to read “Lake Wobegon Days” though it may be a bit too plodding for some people of my generation. In that case, I would direct you to his most recent novel “Love Me” or even his awesome one act play “Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus”.

Another fear was stripped away when I heard Robert Altman would be directing. Altman’s an Oscar winner, a recipient of a recent Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy and has numerous classics under his belt. Though an interesting bit of trivia is the fact producers forced Altman (in his eighties) to name an “insurance” director should something happen to him during filming. Who did he pick? None other than Paul Thomas Anderson – the auteur behind “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”. Imagine, if you will, a “Prairie Home Companion” made by the man who gave the world Dirk Diggler.

My fears were also soothed when I first saw the cast list. It’s filled with heavy-hitters. Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan (cue the record scratch)…………what was that last one? Lindsay Lohan? The current teen princess? The star of “Herbie”? The sometimes pop-music “artist”? How in the………but wait, she was good in “Mean Girls”. She was - really. But most importantly she plays Meryl Streep’s daughter in the film and that naturally means she would have spent most of her time on set with the glorious Ms. Streep.

Remember for a moment when Dennis Rodman came to play for the Bulls. It was when he was at his best. Sure, he still colored his hair and did even-God-doesn’t-know-what off the court but on the court he was kept in line like he never was before or after in his career. He was kept in line by Michael Jordan. And Meryl Streep is like a Michael Jordan of acting. It doesn’t matter what kind of gossip Lindsay Lohan may be creating off the set because on the set Meryl Streep is gonna’ keep her in line. Got it?

Okay, so we’ve got a good director, good writer and good cast. What’s the problem? The problem – again – is it’s a radio show. When you listen to it, it feels old-timey and – as I stated earlier – it feels like Saturday night. Is it even possible to capture something like that on celluloid?

By God, I think it may be. My first encounter with the “Prairie Home Companion” preview assuaged all and any doubt. Don’t ask me how but the damn thing looked old-timey. The feel of the film just felt so classical – like you were right there in the Fitzgerald Theater of downtown St. Paul with them – gussied up and ready for the show. If it’s in any way possible to bottle up the feeling 5 PM on Saturday night provides, it appears this movie may just have the goods to pull it off.

1 comment:

Miss B said...

By god, I hope you are right. I have a deep special place for "Prarie Home Companion" in my heart. My two uncles are literally Garrison Keilor's "swedish bachelor farmers". No joke. Thier first language is Swedish and they never married and still live in the farmhouse where they grew up. They can't throw anything away or socialize with anyone besides thier families. Sigh... I can only pray that this movie will live up to my deep and abiding love for the show.