MANHATTAN, Kan. - What is the matter with Kansas? Ever since William Allen White posed the question in 1896, many people have tried to answer it. More recently Thomas Frank took on the question in his 2004 book in which he answered the question by saying that the state's political discourse had dramatically shifted from the class animus of traditional leftist thought which once was the hallmark of the state to one in which hot button cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are used to redirect anger towards electing individuals who work against Kansans' own best interests.
Now two directors from Chicago, Joe Winston and Laura Coen, have taken on the question and tried to answer it through the lens of a camera.
On Tuesday October 13th, 130 people filled the Manhattan Public Library Auditorium for only the second screening of What's the Matter with Kansas? to occur in the state to date. It premiered at the 2008 Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita. The film was part of the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice's Monthly Film Series.
The content of Frank's book isn't really the material of a spellbinding blockbuster Hollywood movie, but it does have a story to tell. Faced with this reality the directors focus primarily on three everyday Kansans, who each in their own way tell the viewer the content Frank tries to get across in his writing.
A life-long Republican and mother of two, we first meet Angel Dillard at the Kansas State Fair, where she is volunteering at the Kansans For Life booth - a booth that does a lively trade in anti-abortion paraphernalia including little plastic aborted fetuses
Brittany Barden is a tireless veteran of several rounds of Republican campaigns, even if she is only a senior in high school. Her parents - as does Dillard - attend Emmanuel Baptist Church headed then by the Rev. Terry Fox. Her goal in life is to return America to its roots as "a Christian nation" and is armed with a home school education that emphasizes this fact.
We also meet Donn Teske, a farmer from Wheaton and the president of the Kansas Farmers Union. Teske describes himself as "a red-neck Kansas farmer" who has left the Republican Party and calls himself a populist independent. Teske was on hand to comment about the film following the Manhattan showing.
In addition to these primary characters, we also meet others who are searching out Kansas' historical radical roots as well as meet M.T. Liggett - a Kansas folk artist - who embodies Kansas' radical past in the present day.
From these individuals is woven the story of Kansas leading up to the 2006 election - you know the one that featured Radical Right candidates like Phil Klein and Ken Canfield, founder of the National Center for Fathering. The film explores the motives behind why people hold the beliefs they do, but does not make conclusions about the characters and their futures.
Some of their statements drew laughs from the viewing audience; others obviously made people feel uncomfortable. For most of the audience, the blending of religious ideology with political activism is a real cause for concern and because the film does not directly condemn this as un-American, several viewers felt the film didn't go far enough to reflect the core content of Frank's thinking.
Also in the audience was a contingent of Right Wing supporters who fled as soon as the credits began to roll. As moderator of the film series, I was looking forward to hearing their reactions to the film in a public setting, since one of their bloggers had condemn the film without seeing it. Maybe they were afraid of what they saw and realized they could not approach the topic with the same evenhandedness as Coen and Wintson do in the film.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed the commentary offer by Don Teske about being part of the project, like the only pay he got was a bottle of whiskey. He shared that he did not really know what was going on until he got to see the finished project at Tallgrass last year. He said that Coen and Winston had come out to visit him a couple of times on his ranch in Pottawatomie County, shot some footage and were off.
As a lapsed Republican, Teske embodies an ethos of compassion and respect that the Right Wing has left in the dust in their pursuit of the culture of greed. He also embodies what true Populism is all about. We see him eloquently address Congress on the crisis facing farmers and offers real alternatives to the business as usual approach government takes to the production of our food.
While What's the Matter with Kansas? earnestly tries to speak to conservatives and offer an alternative to the delusional, inflammatory answers they are getting from faux-populist pundits like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, it plays it straight in order to attempt to create an honest dialogue. This left some progressives in the audience wanting something more. However, given the political landscape in Kansas, an honest dialogue about who we are is a rare commodity to be sure and that is what the film provides.
If you want to hear Coen and Winston's take on making the film, check out the interview I conducted with them last April 2nd on Community Bridge. The podcast is located in the right hand column about half way down the page.
A DVD of the film is available for check out through the Manhattan Public Library.
Postscript 24 October 2009
The Right-Wing blogger mentioned in the article apparently did attend the screening in Manhattan and he wrote another review after seeing the film -- not much different than his first review before he even saw the film. However Winston and Coen have posted a response to his inability to think outside his ideological box. Good reading.