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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Prarie Home Companion

Nostalgia is far too intoxicating to be invoked lightly. Feelings of loss and sadness for things past (or, perhaps, things we never actually knew) always accompany what reassurance it offers. Garrison Kiellor's Prarie Home Companion seems to be morphing into a show more concerned with its past than its present, replaying tired bits that are neither timely nor funny--an entity laden with nostalgia yet short on the with and humor that made it great. As the NY Times reports, Kiellor is creating a semi-autobiogrpahical film about a failing public radio show, directed by Robert Altman. Certainly if Prairie Home Companion is having trouble with ratings it is not a lack of old white people--those seem to be at an all-time high. Rather, the show feels old--the music is still good, so are the sound effects--something is missing. Call it the corporatization of Lake Wobegon.

Lake Wobegon--the fictional home town of Kiellor--is a place "where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." Each week Kiellor offers the News from Lake Wobegon, including the latest happenings of the Whippets Baseball team, Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery and Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Parish. Unlike the nostalgic towns recently portrayed--the ones most recently in those black and white Visa commercials in which everything ends up just hunky doory and before that that the better than expected film Pleasantville--things go humorously awry in Lake Wobegon. The Whippets lose, snow mobiles topple, yet the emotions evoked--compassion, family, and most of all a sense of home (certainly a cliched description and one which does not do Kieler's Wobegon justice)--are the same.

It can be argued the death of Lake Wobegon began September 30th 1998. Albany Jaycees, a Minnesotan with far too much time, designed the Lake Wobegon Trails, 46 miles worth of them. Many have gone in search of Lake Wobegon, but the charm and magic of Kiellor's hamlet resides in its ephermal existence--what's the point of the end of the rainbow if we can go hike through it anytime we please? Yet Jaycees' best of intentions created the Wobegon Trails that day, giving a physicality and all that comes with it to Kiellor's world. Debates about snow mobile paths, rules, governing bodies, and funding ensued. Perhaps to blame Jaycees is the end of an attempt to find a scapegoat--how much does naming a park or a town or a field of poppies "Oz" really detract from the movie? These efforts aren't even for commercial gain--indeed, creating public trails probably produced some sort of social good.

The Lake Wobegon Trails, Kiellor's movie and the overall tone of Prairie Home Companion are indicative of a show whose time has passed. They each are manifestations--by Jaycee, Altman, and Kiellor himself--Prairie Home Companion's new role as a show which was, and a show upon which these individuals now reflect. They turned it into a piece of nostalgia, rather than a vehicle which humor was derived from nostalgia. Lake Wobegon was a place that existed, yet we knew this funny land could not be reached--it had its problems, but they were only the humorous kind. The Whippets may have lost, but at least they didn't have to deal with snow mobile regulatory committees.