Thursday, July 20, 2006

Keillor's 'Prairie' makes a fine pasture for Altman
The Long Goodbye

by Rob Nelson
June 7, 2006

Like the Grand Ole Opry plopped into a fragrant barn at a Midwestern county fair, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion befits its roots in frosty Minnesota soil through its worldview, Buddhist by way of Scandinavia: Life is about suffering. The wind chill is below zero and so is your spouse; bone-dry Pastor Ingqvist beats his pulpit, and you take it like a slap in the face; the cows will make their mess, you'll clean it up, and they'll do it again, every day, until, God willing, you die. No one in Keillor's Lake Wobegon actually complains (they persevere), and no one expects a miracle. Things can always get worse and they do—but it'll be over soon enough. Rhubarb pie and a toe-tapping ditty about the basic unfairness (and occasional joys) of life—shared, ideally, in the company of fellow sufferers—at least help pass the time on long Saturday nights in front of the transistor radio.

Maybe Keillor was countering the counterculture by sending his first grimace-and-bear-it news from Lake Wobegon over the airwaves in the times-are-a-changin'-back year of 1974. Or maybe the emcee's playfully slippery tone—alternately parodying and celebrating mid-American nostalgia for old-fashioned hard work, righteous self-pity, and what-the-hell-let's-strike-up-the-band—allowed that only our close attention to a speaker's nuances would prevent another Tricky Dick. (Is that condescension or inspiration in Keillor's mock-heroic lilt? Might it be both?) Whatever the case, the host's comically longwinded monologues on life in the invisibly small town have become damn near seditious in wartime. Here is the rare popular broadcaster who's dedicated to counting casualties—not just poor Junior overseas, but Mom and Pop and their corner store, too.

Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion is something of a different story—even though Keillor wrote it (for the director's approval, of course). What the maker of Nashville sees in the show, predictably, is not a self-made bandleader and oddball raconteur—or a mysterious regional/ethnic culture, either—so much as another democratic ensemble of musicians and assorted stagehands who come together in the service of maintaining their insular artists' colony in an inhospitable climate. Tellingly, Altman never shows the audience: For this gently fictionalized backstage musical set at the show's real home (the Fitz in St. Paul, of course), the audience is Robert Altman, and so is the master of ceremonies. Keillor, clad in trademark suit and red Saucony sneakers, appears more as absentminded professor of non sequitur studies than as genius star of the show; his "GK," introduced in his boxer shorts, still ironing his trousers only minutes before curtain call, would rather perform backstage than onstage—perhaps because his stories at the microphone here are limited to screwball pitches for duct tape and Powdermilk Biscuits ("made from whole wheat raised by Norwegian bachelor farmers so you know they're good for you"), with nary a word about Wobegon (or the war).

There are characters in the Prairie Home movie: the Johnson sisters from Oshkosh, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep), county fair-circuit singers whose loopy chats before showtime wander from the dangers of glazed doughnuts to the pleasures of rubber bands; the Old Trailhands, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly), a pair of bad-joke-cracking cowboy crooners; and a hardboiled but clumsy security guard called Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a familiar figure from Keillor's actual show. The flimsiness of these characters ends up adding to the movie's charm: These aren't really Midwestern radio performers so much as movie stars who've signed up for one more loose improv party with Robert Altman. The director is chiefly interested in capturing the musical performances, which carry a casually infectious, low-key energy even (or especially) when the movie stars are singing off-key. Lindsay Lohan, nominally playing Yolanda's depressed teen daughter Lola, belts out a crazy number at the end that almost allows Altman to suggest that this fading musical world could survive through another generation.

Keillor's modest subservience to Altman's group dynamic feels downright gallant and, in the context of the veteran director's most humanistic movie by a wide margin, it certainly has its rewards. Spread across the dozen-odd players, the focus is soft; the movie's dressing rooms, stacked floor to ceiling with showbiz bric-a-brac, are lit as if by candle, the better for everyone in the all-star cast to shine when it's his or her turn. The mood is exceedingly chatty, but laid-back, which is new for the 81-year-old Altman. The director amends his copyrighted style ever so slightly: The dialogue here doesn't overlap so much as cascade; the zooms don't suggest a biologist squinting through a microscope, but someone—an old man, I might as well say it—leaning in for a tiny kiss.

The conceit allowing this warm elegy is that a corporate "axeman" from Texas (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to close down the theater and the show along with it—which at any other time for Altman would've occasioned the director's defiant resistance or bitter vindication rather than what we have here, which is something closer to Oh, well—it was fun while it lasted. What's most Keilloresque about the Prairie Home Companion movie is its stoic Midwestern shrug in the face of imminent extinction. Giving the artists the semblance of a chance to survive the corporate menace, Keillor's script conjures a patently absurd angel of death (Virginia Madsen in a femme fatale's trench coat) who could ostensibly eliminate the threat with a wave of her hand. But Keillor and Altman know that there are forces much greater than fiction or even Fate these days. The corporations have become bigger than God—which is a cynic's joke. The optimist's warmth—inspired by Keillor's Wobegon resolve and Altman's twilight gentility—is that the artists will endure anyway.

Richard Linklater's Scanner is a rotoscoped feast for freaks
Truly, Madly, 'Darkly'

by Rob Nelson
July 12, 2006

Slipped into the summer movie season like acid in your Happy Meal, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is a blockbuster of counterprogramming. No matter that the dude from The Matrix is its star—or would be, if he weren't half-hidden under a thick swath of digital paint. Linklater's return to Waking Life's surreally pulsing world of rotoscope animation—and his flashback to Philip K. Dick's like-titled drug dystopia of the late '70s—is a prefab cult flick pitched to a drastically underserved group of filmgoers: stoners, depressives, bookworms, conspiracy theorists, movie critics, and various other head-scratching freaks for whom the promise of Hollywood action sounds more like a threat. What a breath of fresh air this stifling, claustrophobic, boldly uningratiating vision of an American subculture's last gasp imparts to its contrarian core audience. (Call me a hopeless addict: I've seen it three times.)

Darkly is the key word here. Superman's vulnerabilities have nothing on those of Bob Arctor, a.k.a. Agent Fred (Keanu Reeves, plus computers), an undercover narcotics officer with a secret past and an unshakable addiction to the brain-damaging Substance D. Both cop and copout, this "ultimate everyman" might be the most fractured protagonist ever to grace an American movie: Assigned to spy and rat on his D-dropping friends, then on himself, the fried narc succumbs to his jones and eventually loses all but two brain cells, forgetting duty and identity alike. Adding insult to a psychic injury that's deep from the start, Arctor's bosses at the Orange County Police Precinct force him to conceal his true self (whatever that is) under a hi-tech "scramble suit" — a kind of kaleidoscopic body-hologram that morphs at split-second intervals to reveal portions of men, women, and children of every variety. His corporate/government masters admiringly refer to their digitized puppet as a "vague blur"; we might call him an unreliable narrator, except that the world he's surveilling—controlled by a shadow cabal of Halliburtonian proportions—is more spun than he is. Even paranoids have enemies—and only a paranoid, perhaps, can see them clearly.

Printed in 1977, the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, Dick's counterculture postmortem—which culminates in a list of drug-related casualties, including the author himself—is hardly escapist sci-fi or even sci-fi at all. That futuristic scramble suit, however metaphorically vivid, mainly served as a means for the author to slide his semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Orange County past the publisher at the start of the Just Say No age. Similarly, Linklater's movie smuggles its unfashionably melancholy take on pushers and addicts under cover of the animated trifle—at the expense of approval by those who'd prefer it to be purely psychedelic, another cool distraction, more roller-coaster ride than bad trip.

Waking Life used essentially the same technology to sneak amateur philosophy into the art house, though that movie's euphoric "holy moments" are the opposite of this film's strategic buzz-kill. Scanner's initial dose of circuitous junkie jabber—the cast of recovering bad boys (Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr.) lending extra authenticity to their characters' absurd rants about mountain-bike gears and "albino shape-shifting lizard bitches"—isn't liberating in the least. It's not even very funny, as befits a movie that consistently dares to forego entertainment in favor of verisimilitude. (A dying junkie is hilarious only to a filmmaker who hasn't really wanted to imagine one.)

Linklater, who has helmed a sequel (Before Sunset), a remake (Bad News Bears), and now a kind of double-vision riff on Dick's work and his own, relishes the cognitive dissonance that comes from the same-but-different style of reprise: Squint long enough at A Scanner Darkly and you see scrambled traces of every movie this chameleonic director has ever done. (Arctor's fuzzy memory of having fled his suburban family out of boredom is like Ethan Hawke's Sunset fantasy of escape becoming the darkest dawn.) Still, in deference to Dick and the tragedy of his own addiction, Scanner is a drug movie above all—and that movie ain't Dazed and Confused. In this fascist near-future, where an activist barking into a bullhorn gets Taser-blasted and carted off by SWAT-team cops, users are pitted against fellow users, against themselves. Whatever community the movie finds in the picture of self-medicating sad-sacks sharing bugged-out hallucinations in a tract-home shack gives way to the bleaker image of a lone pill-popper at work, peering at his friends through concealed cameras, doubting that his higher-ups, with their arsenal of invisible scanners, see him any less darkly.

Dick wasn't one for solutions—"There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois," he writes in the book's afterword—and neither is Linklater. There's hope in A Scanner Darkly, but only a sliver—just the momentary spark of two tiny lights in a sea of black, or the rare gift of a filmmaker whose fixes are paradox and contradiction. It makes sense that the most gripping images in Linklater's tweaked-out, color-flared eye-popper would be the simplest: blue-tinged close-ups of Arctor's beseeching face, hidden inside his corporate scramble suit just as Reeves the untouchable celebrity can only emote from behind a digital veil. However you look at it, it's the picture of modern alienation, of the ubiquitous man who knows he'll never really be seen.

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