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    What's the Matter with Kansas?


    "What's the Matter with Kansas?" borrows the title of a deeply perceptive book about American politics and turns it into a shallow snapshot of religious conservatives.


    If "What's the Matter with Kansas," the book, had had a section of pictures in the middle, they would have been like "What's the Matter with Kansas," the movie — a nice extra, but you still have to read the book to know what you're looking at.

    Directed by: Joe Winston.
    Produced by: Laura Cohen, Joe Winston.
    Featuring: Dan Glickman, Jason Lisle, Terry Fox, Thomas Frank, Garrett Harmon, Matthew Barden, Dale Swenson, Bob Lippoldt, Connie Kelly, Troy Newman, Mark Gietzen, Rob Dillard, Thomas Etheredge, Steve LaRue, Penney Schwab, Dawn Barden, Randy Roberts, M.T. Liggett, Donn Teske, Lynn Schneider, Nicholas Barden, Rob Barden, Hilda Flores, Velia Mendoza, Brad Bennett, Cindie Bennett, Katy Dillard, Reuben Mendoza, Tiffany Barden, Tyler Teske, Zachary Teske, Angel Dillard, Brittany Barden, Terry McLachlan, Alyssa Barden, Jose Flores, Reagan Dillard, Julie Burkhart, Kathy Teske.
    Cinematography: T.W. Li.
    Edited by: Alex MacKenzie, Joe Winston.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater
    Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam
    (212) 875-5600
    Thursday, August 6, 2009, 6:30 pm

    The documentary doesn't even explain its own provocative title. The title (borrowed from an 1896 newspaper article) might sound like an attack on the rightward-lurching state's politics and people, but the book is quite the opposite in tone. It isn't asking "What is wrong with these people?" — far from it. The title really means, let's look into the matter of Kansas. How have the people there changed?

    So what exactly needs looking into? The film doesn't present this question clearly, even though the subject is stated up front in Thomas Frank's outstanding 2004 book. His essential question is: How did Kansas turn from a New Deal liberal state to a Bush-era conservative state? Why, when farms, factories, businesses and downtowns are vanishing, do an increasingly impoverished people in Kansas identify with the party of the rich and vote seemingly against themselves?

    The book's answer has something to do with an essential change in how America thinks about class. With the disappearance of the 20th-century economy, class is no longer economic — workers vs. owners. It is cultural. The rhetorical attacks on latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, homosexual-loving East Coast and West Coast liberals make sense to people there — especially the working class. In opposition to these faraway "elites," Kansans are able to see themselves as the besieged but valiant keepers of American "values." Most centrally, they preserve Christian truth and uniquely care about the lives of unborn babies. It's a reorientation of the Kansan mind. If you're for Christ and babies, you know you're the good guys.

    What's the Matter with Kansas?  
    Okay, so that's the missing framework. Now we're finally ready to get something out of the movie. Assuming that we're trying to explore the subject of the book, we can find scattered minutes that illustrate that theme.

    One segment briefly illustrates how the religious right mobilized in the early 1990s and ousted nine-term Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman. Glickman himself tells the filmmakers that the religious mobilization seemed to come out of nowhere near the end of the campaign. "I'd say to my staff, 'Who are these people?'" he recalls. But they didn't come out of nowhere — they came out of mobilization in churches and the channeling of passion from anti-abortion protests into patient domination of the political apparatus.

      The film takes what I think is the wrong approach to its subject — finding some interesting, or minimally interesting, individuals and observing their daily lives for a while. It should really be called "What Kind of People Live in Kansas?"
    Glickman's most interesting observation is this: "I did best in the high-income Republican parts of the city [Wichita], and did worse in blue-collar Democratic parts." That would have seemed backwards 20 years ago, but it's right on today. Social issues are remaking the map.

    This is one of the only parts of the film that are about what the film should be about: change. Or, as Frank calls it, the Kansan people's "conversion story." The rest of the film is not about the book. You kind of have to wrench your own meaning out of it, but ultimately it's about a different theme that can also be condensed into one word: separation.

    The film takes what I think is the wrong approach to its subject — finding some interesting, or minimally interesting, individuals and observing their daily lives for a while. It should really be called "What Kind of People Live in Kansas?" And what is really noticeable among these people is that, although right and left may live in the same small farming communities, they are in their own little worlds.

    Although we only have a few minutes devoted to how the Christian right became such a force, we do spend a lot of time simply watching them in their native habitat. And what jumps out is how well protected they are from any person or thought that might disagree with them.

    A politically active high-school senior named Brittany (who is never actually shown in a high school; there's a chance she's home-schooled by her rather underqualified mom) shows off the kind of learning she's been subjected to with explanations like this:

    What's the Matter with Kansas?  
    "We were meant to be a Christian nation. That was what our founding fathers intended. That was what they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and what they wrote into the Constitution. And it's served us well for the last 200 years, but unfortunately we're getting so far away from that foundation."

    Brittany has probably never spoken with a single person in her life who would challenge her almost entirely unsupported reading of the text of the Declaration and the Constitution; she has probably never learned about the actual religious background of the founding fathers; she has certainly never debated anyone with a different view about the role of religion in society. She has simply received a talking point and trained herself to repeat it. And crucially, no one in her milieu (including the filmmakers) ever challenges her, because she is in a no-infidel zone.

    Brittany finishes the movie by heading off to "college" — specifically, Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which specializes in home-schooled Christian children (and has a pipeline to the Bush White House). Her mother notes how important it is to avoid secular colleges, where many Christian kids question and abandon their received religion. The protective bubble has to be maintained. The good Christian people have to be separated from everyone else.

      Put a loudmouth oddball in front of a camera, and, presto, you have a character. But a character in what movie? In a movie about oddballs. What's the matter with Kansas is that it has a lot of weirdos making sculptures?
    Among people like this, it's no surprise that everybody else starts to look like Satan. A local Republican volunteer believes the country turned against President Bush because he is a Christian. Issues, complex and messy, don't enter into it. Other people's points of view are not their right — they're just evil. "What you basically have right now with conservatism is good and evil," he says. "You see Jesus and Satan all the time."

    As a counterpoint, we also get some anti-Bush curmudgeons. A likeable middle-aged farmer says he used to be a Republican committeeman, but now calls himself a "populist without a party." Why did he leave? Because of something to do with farm failures, I guess, although his process of conversion is murky. Again, the story is a snapshot — it isn't about change.

    An old retiree spends his days making steel sculptures with names, slogans and swastikas on them, and, as he'll tell most anybody within earshot in addition to proclaiming it on his artwork, he thinks Bush is an asshole. He's certainly a personality and a half, but he is also what's the matter with "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

    There's no way filmmakers Laura Cohen and Joe Winston could have resisted the crusty sculptor, even though they should have. Why? Because they were committed to telling their story through characters, not ideas. This is in keeping with the current vogue in documentary making — talking heads are boring, interviews are meddling, narrators are arrogantly trying to tell you what to think. Didacticism is tyranny! Only life stories are valid stories. The only thing a documentarian does is stand quietly in a corner and hold a camera while the magic happens.

    What's the Matter with Kansas?  
    Put a loudmouth oddball in front of a camera, and, presto, you have a character. But a character in what movie? In a movie about oddballs. What's the matter with Kansas is that it has a lot of weirdos making sculptures?

    Let's think about the answer to that question — it is the title of the movie, after all. What is the matter with Kansas? Most of the movie is about evangelicals who are scared of evolution-teachers and the ACLU. So the simple answer to "What's the Matter with Kansas?" must be either 1. the evangelicals are ruining it, or 2. the forces of evil are at work and the evangelicals are saving it.

    Which one is the message of the film? Both. Neither. It doesn't matter — the film has no message. It is a film about the filmmakers' commitment to being in Kansas — not about the question that is the title of their film. Although they have done an arduous job of dropping in and documenting life in a faraway state, I doubt they could answer that question themselves. The film certainly doesn't.

    AUGUST 20, 2009

    Reader comments on What's the Matter with Kansas?:

  • Good effort   from Michael Bray, Feb 11, 2010
  • Review of "What's the matter with Kansas"   from Raymond Kingfish, Oct 10, 2010
  • No, that doesn't count.   from Iain, Dec 25, 2010

  • Post a comment on "What's the Matter with Kansas?"