' Cinema Romantico: The Garrison Keillor You Always Knew

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Garrison Keillor You Always Knew

No one would ever confuse Garrison Keillor, the great orator of the Midwest, host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, which closes its 42nd season this Friday which will be Keillor’s final season, of being a great actor, or even an actor at all. He bears but a single acting credit on IMDb and that, as you might surmise, was for a movie he penned called, uh, “A Prairie Home Companion” in which he played a character named GK (sometimes referred to as “Garrison”). He was playing himself! But was he? Is he ever? I ask that question because of The New York Times profile written by Cara Buckley that landed a couple weeks ago titled The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew. The Garrison Keillor We Don’t Know, it turns out, is one that we don’t really get to know all that well either, the offstage Garrison Keillor, one whose “default setting” Buckley describes this way: “the introverted, removed man who seems miles away, even when you’re sitting two feet from him on his porch, eating the jelly beans he has set out.”

Buckley never really cracks the case with the offstage Keillor, because Keillor seems to have specifically designed that case to be un-crackable, though she does manage to detect how his mood changes when he takes the stage for his weekly show. It’s something that Roger Angell, the legendary New Yorker scribe, who hired Keillor to work at the magazine in the 1970’s, also notes, saying “I don’t think he’s necessarily a happy man. But the time he is happy is when he is doing his monologue.” Monologues? You don’t say?

Keillor in the midst of a monologue because of course he is. 
Monologues are GK’s principal form of communication in “A Prairie Home Companion.” The first time we see him he’s explaining how he got started in radio, but that explanation begins at the beginning, being hired to play Huck Finn in Mark Twain Days and running a raft on the Mississippi that ran into the wake of a steamboat. It connects with his start, truly, and he gets there, eventually, but the monologue is drawn out over the space of several scenes as director Robert Altman and his editor Jacob Craycroft keep cutting to other characters and their complications and then back to GK who is still keeping on keeping on.

Now an astute viewer might note that GK is telling the origin of his radio broadcasting to people who have worked with him for years. How could that be?! But that’s a rush of insight into a character who has kept this origin story from them all these years and even as he’s finally recounting it is still going to great lengths to obfuscate it by going on and on and on. And he continues to go on and on and on, the whole movie, where the majority of his dialogue off the stage is monologues, telling things that have already happened rather than honing in on what’s going to happen and how he feels about and who in the world he is.

Other characters here pick up on this mask, like Yolanda (Meryl Streep), one half of a sister singing duo who used to romance the character of GK. When another performer on the show perishes and GK refuses to do a eulogy, she can hardly believe it, and says so. She says he’s afraid he’ll cry, though they both know that isn’t true – he won’t cry because he’s too inanimate, because he refuses to let anything in, to let anyone too close. He’s The Great Stone Face of Radio, and Keillor, by not really acting at all, probably because he can’t, plays straight to it.

That makes for a deft trick. If you write a character based on yourself it would suggest an opportunity to get to the bottom of one’s self. Not Keillor, who writes and plays a character that’s him while still keeping you from really ever pinning him down. It’s like double stuffed subterfuge. It’s the Garrison Keillor we’ve always known, who we’ve never known at all.

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