Monday, June 19, 2006

Christopher Hitchens; Bernard-Henri Lévy & de Tocqueville

A few months ago when I pitched an editor on covering the (then) forthcoming Robert Altman film based on Garrison Keillor's radio show A Prairie Home Companion which stars Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep, Keillor, Virginia Madsen other A-list talent and is now in theaters -- she asked me why is this film so important to the readership - who consist primarily of the college-aged and twenty-somethings. I told her, "In a few months, there's going to be a groundswell of younger people looking for the real deal . Hindsight 20/20, my prediction was spot-on. Since covering press for it, I've noticed a couple of hipsters around town chatting about PHC -- crazy. (see Q & A below for interview)
[Pictured above: Christopher Hitchens and Bernard-Henri Lévy]

To be certain, the fact that Hollywood scenesters are talking about a 30 years-running radio show should not be heralded as an epic cultural sea-change by any means but PHC's not the standard Hollywood conversation patter, yo. I'd been listening to the show for years now (it's good to listen to while writing on the weekends) and became a fan of the show. Sure, some of the skits are corny and many of the jokes are aimed at the white, geriatric set who tend to wax romantic about the "good old days" which weren't so good for sepia-hued citizens -- and still isn't in many cases -- but it was still worth a listen, sometimes you could get a really sweet mix of un-trendy American music from jazz, to country, to blues to Appalachian bluegrass (long before O' Brother, Where Art Thou?).

In the film PHC, Keillor portrays the shambling and dour Minnesotan radio show host that he's embodied on the airwaves since the 70's, no great feat, some might yawn, but if you're a fan of the show who's been listening for a minute, it's cool to see how it's been done on the air after all this time because although the show's taken on the road from locations all over the country (sometimes from abroad from places like Iceland, Germany and Ireland too) -- as the press kit and billboards read: "It's radio like you've never seen it before." Once I started to check PHC on the regular, I've perused a couple of Keillor's books borrowed from the library; try to check the daily five-minute-long Writer's Almanac entries -- if I'm still awake when they air at about 5:00 AM in Los Angeles and, as mentioned in an entry below, got a chance to meet the big guy in the flesh during the press run for the film but more recently than that, I started to double-think on what I really saw/ heard in the author as it applies to my personal sensibilities...

A couple of days ago while reading Slate's online (this is another show I listen to on mornings during the week on public radio) I found an article by Sam Anderson which pointed out a couple of issues I'd been overlooking about the radio Keillor and the real guy, once a Talk of the Town columnist for the New Yorker, who got the zap on his dome to launch a radio show in the spirit of the Grand Old Opry after doing a piece on the Ryman Auditorium down in Nashville. The Anderson pieced delved a bit deeper into the man while pointing out the way he (sniffily?) left the New Yorker in the early 90's when Tina Brown jumped ship from Vanity Fair (and ushered in Graydon Carter's reign) and took the wheel of (the fictional frontman) Eustace Tilly's vessel -- like politics, you've got to continually read this shite to maintain perspective over the years. Anyway, the darker corners of the writer/ radio host's persona, that I've picked up before in some of his short stories in print and monologues on stage, came to the fore and Anderson's piece put a couple of fish hooks in me...who was this guy, really, that millions tune in to on a weekly basis? Some of the answers to that question came to me via a reaction that Keillor wrote in a review of a book written by a Parisian philosopher who tried to trace the path taken by two of his countrymen -- about 175 years ago.

As fate would have it, back in April I was watching Tavis Smiley's late night talk show on KCET (PBS) which featured a little back-and-forth with the internationally acclaimed documentarian/ writer Bernard-Henri Lévy and it pulled my coat on the Frenchman's new book called American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, which he'd penned and was supporting on the televised coffee table circuit. Early last year I'd" written on here about Alexis de Tocqueville and the effects that his book Democracy in America had had when it was first published back in 1835 -- in 1831 de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, both French aristocrats, were sent by the French government to report on the state of fledgling America's prison system. After spending just under a year shooting around the young country's prisons; taking observations on it's society; economic landscape and it's newly-christened "Democratic Processes" they returned to their homeland in 1832, submitted their penal report and wrote books; Beaumont wrote a novel about race relations in the United States and de Tocqueville penned his tome on American Democracy -- fast forward a century and some change.

More recently, while doing research for American Vertigo in the spirit of Beaumont and de Tocqueville, Lévy followed suit and came to the States; visited prisons, visited locales varied and sundry, took a gander at the political, economic and racial landscape and, like the 19th Century French aristocrats before him, went back to Europe and wrote about what he'd witnessed. After reading the book himself, Keillor wrote a review in the New York Times that Sam Anderson deemed "viciously funny," I found myself shrinking away from the Keillor I'd grown to expect via PHC broadcasts and found one of the old, set in their ways, bachelor codgers that he's poked fun at over the years in the fictional township of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota...out in the woods....the kind of folks that would string up what Billie Holiday called 'strange fruit'...careful how you pick your heroes, yo....

As often happens when gleaning articles online, while reading about all of the above, I found a linked piece written by Vanity Fair columnist Christopher "Hitch" Hitchens, another one of my favorite scribes/ personalities who, in print, hands GK his hat with a scathing counter-review and takes the dour Minnesotan to task -- give a mofo a column in VF and they think they're Michiko-fuggin'-Kakutani an' shite...Hitch opens his tsk, tsk-ing essay with this: "Every now and again you come across the real thing: a case of full-blown, corn-fed, white-bread American nativist bloviation...Not since the xenophobic patriots of World War I took to roughing up German waiters and announcing that sauerkraut was henceforth to be "Liberty Cabbage" has there been such a fiesta of all-American bullshit...Here, the Homer of Middle America shows that he sure knows how to sneer and that he's no hick but also knows where Paris is" -- OUCH!

I've been reading C.H.'s VF pieces for a minute now and he's one of the tightest, smartest scribes around -- hell, in this piece he called Keillor out with references to French thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Albert Camus -- to name a few. and makes short-and-curlies of the "Liberty-cabbage" tone of G.K.'s review/ rant -- good show Hitch, I raise my glass to you...I think I hear Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" cranking out of a speaker somewhere...Too, I'll add, it's very easy to get the gossamer partition of what's real and what's fiction blurred while working the entertainment circuit in this town -- seeing people you've just chatted with a few hours ago getting beamed at you from the TV becomes surreal at times. Still, I take pride in the fact that I enjoy learning new perspectives that might help me refine my own, so I'll continue to check out the Writer's Almanac and PHC broadcasts when I can because there's always something interesting going on in the minds of older people; there's no fool like an old fool...and I don't want to become one...Laters!


Post a Comment

<< Home