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FISHY PICKLED PRODUCT

 
Garrison Keillor’s brand of kitsch has legions of devotees, but I’m not among them. Those of us as city slickers who travelled with our parents by car in the 50s and early 60s through the prairie states and (without choice) listened to the radio sensed then what we know now—that all the homespun chatter and all that Christian/Americana music influenced rural lives without the filter of fair balance. On those trips, we could feel the social restrictions of and perceive the dangers inherent in that kind of provincial channeling, though we were years away from recognizing the spewing as the malevolent virus it would become—Hate Radio. None of this is broadcasted by Keillor but it’s implicit in his prissy MidWestern attitudes. Fortunately, his wider appeal is in the universal bond to radio, the ubiquitous waves of audio, the comfort of noise. So it’s no surprise and ironically appropriate that Robert Altman, whose greatest contribution to the movies has been the appreciation of sound and how we’re enmeshed by it on every level, would end his career with A Prairie Home Companion. Visuals notwithstanding, his movies have the condensation of radio, that is, the profusion and force of voices, of overlapping connections to our lives. Altman as director and Keillor as screenwriter want to give tribute to more than just a way of communication, though—they want to honor a disappearing modus vivendi. Well, that’s the intention, anyway. When the movie starts with an ex-private eye-now security guard (Kevin Kline) for a St. Paul radio show called “A Prairie Home Companion” telling us the program’s about to have its final broadcast, after being on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade,” a city boy’s ass begins to twitch. There’s a quick reprieve from the fear of Christers when Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin show up as sisters Yolanda and Rolanda and we hear their ditsy-shitsy gab. They’re having a blast with all that improv, believing their folksy zircons are turning into sparkling diamonds, but, hey, it’s two pros doing silly old broad schtick about hypoglycemia, a donut and a thirty day jail sentence. But then the angel of death slithers in, played by a miscast and clumsy white-coated Virginia Madsen, and that ass starts to squirm again. Months after the movie’s release, we now know why as device she’s included: Altman’s time was short; this trifle-in-twilight is his way of saying goodbye. That doesn’t stop the ending from being ambiguous—the angel walks into a diner wherein Streep, Tomlin, Kline and Keillor are seated. (Kline nervously points fingers at who might be next, while the others are frozen in stares.) Viewers often forget Streep is quite a singer in her own right, having belted out close to show-stoppers in Ironweed and Postcards from the Edge. In the latter and here she delivers what seems to be one of her specialities—countrified twang. She and her laughs match up nicely with flask-guzzling Tomlin and hers. John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson charm with a duet of “Bad Jokes.” Tommy Lee Jones pays the price for big business indifference. While having the ear for Mom and rhubarb pie, Keillor’s unmistakable gift is voicing the prose of commercials: it’s fitting to hear him pitch duct tape, pizzas, powdered milk biscuits and pickled fish products.

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