March 11, 2010

 

 

 

As It Goes in Kansas
Author Thomas Frank and filmmaker Joe Winston tell us ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas’
by Dan Lybarger

About 10 year years ago, I had the pleasure of showing what might have been a long missing film to cameraman Maurice Prather, one of the people who made it. Star 34 had been released during the 1950s to plug Kansas’ moribund tourist trade.

It didn’t help.

Prather hadn’t seen the short film in decades and made wisecracks throughout the screening. Star 34 was included with the Criterion DVD for the Lawrence-shot horror film Carnival of Souls and described Sunflower State landmarks in such glowing terms that even natives would avoid. Prather had worked diligently on both films so out of respect I held back my giggles.

He, however, had no qualms about snickering at this own handiwork. Despite some handsome color photography, he lamented, “There’s only so much you can do with Kansas.”

After several years of filming across the state, author Thomas Frank and Chicago-based documentarian Joe Winston would disagree. Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? was a New York Times bestseller and launched the Shawnee Mission East grad to prominence. Since 2008, he’s been a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of another bestseller, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which charges that the last Republican administration deliberately went about dismantling government as an effective regulator to the benefit of the wealthy.

Kansas artist M. T. Liggett protests FEMA's rebuilding of Greensburg, KS

The previous book has inspired Winston to make a new documentary of the same title that features Frank and other Kansans describing the current political situation inside the state. It debuts at the Tivoli in Westport on March 12 at 6:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. Both Frank and Winston will be available for a question and answer session after the Friday screenings and at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Frank also will be at Californos in Westport, 5:30-6:30 pm, on Friday for a meet and greet fundraiser for community radio station KKFI; visit www.kkfi.org for details.

The movie has played in Wichita in 2008, with many of its subjects attending, and in Lawrence in 2009. Roger Ebert chose it as one of the 10 Best Documentaries of 2009 stating, “I’ve rarely seen a documentary quite like it. It has a point to make but no ax to grind.”

A matter of class

What’s the Matter with Kansas? struck a nerve because it demonstrated how culture wars, particularly the rise of Pro-Life groups during the 1990s has led Kansans to vote for candidates who frequently act against the economic interests of their own constituents. In the book, Frank explains how many of the free-market policies endorsed by Kansas’ delegation in Washington have devastated the rural sections of the state. Populations have dropped and once flourishing industries have stagnated or died.

Combining touches of satire with a thorough explanation of how working class conservatism had risen, Frank’s book caught on because it looked at the phenomenon in a way that had escaped pundits in both Washington and even in some of Kansas’ bigger metropolitan areas.

Speaking from his current home in Washington, DC, Frank explains, “It describes something about (Kansans’) immediate reality, like their immediate family and the world that they’re in, that other people weren’t saying. For whatever reason, the mainstream media could not talk about that subject: working class conservatism. It’s something we all know that happens. We all know it’s out there. In the last couple of elections, there’s been a majority of white, working class people voting for these extreme right-wing candidates.

“Class is always really difficult for (media) to talk about, unless it’s really rich people or really, really poor people. But people in between voting for politics that doesn’t really help them except in sort of a psychic sense, that’s really hard for the media to talk about,” he says.

The book caught the attention of director Joe Winston when he and his wife producer Laura Cohen at a speech Frank gave in Chicago with Studs Terkel and former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean.

Although Frank’s observations had raised eyebrows across the nation, Winston, speaking from Chicago, recalls, “I asked Tom about whether the movie rights were available, and he just laughed. He didn’t know what to make of it. And when Laura read the book, and so how are you going to make this into a movie, and who are our main characters? And what is the story? Neither of us had been to Kansas. That was part of the allure, really.”

Frank recalls, “When I was writing the book, the great conflict that I had was between taking this kind of H.L. Mencken stance and laughing at everybody and calling them names, and on the other hand doing this sort of anthropological approach and just trying to understand people. What I would end up doing was a little bit of both.

“Joe just wanted to go with the second approach, and that was fine with me. I thought that was a wise decision.”

Except for a few scenes where Frank explains Kansas and its radical history (the state was once the home to an enormously popular socialist newspaper), he’s not in it. “I didn’t have any problem with not being in it. I can’t stand to see my face on the screen,” he says.

Winston adds, “The two are really like companion pieces. The book does certain things really brilliantly well, and what we thought would be interesting to do in the movie was if we could find some people in the conservative movement and get to know them really well and have the audience really get to know them well, especially a typical documentary film-watching audience. That would be an interesting experience to get them to sympathize with people who are on the other side from them politically.”

The story writes itself

Although the Winston and Cohen shots hours of footage across the state over several years, the film version of What’s the Matter with Kansas? focuses on anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard during one of her petition drives. Throughout the film she not only describes her activism but also discusses some painful experiences in her personal life that have informed her faith.

Filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen (photo by Jim Newberry)
According to Winston, getting Dillard to discuss her life wasn’t as difficult as he initially imagined. “Angel Dillard is the kind of person that every documentary filmmaker hopes to find as the star of their movie because she’s so open to the camera. Early in the movie you see her activism on the anti-abortion issue, and then you hear her about her past. And that’s exactly how we experienced Angel. The hard part with her was how much to include. She told us way more than is in the movie.”

Dillard and her husband Rob attended the 6,000-member Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, which had been led by the politically active Pro Life pastor Terry Fox. Because of the outspoken nature of Fox’s ministry, the church split with him in 2006 and Fox led his flock to nascent theme park that was based on a Wild West theme (Wild West World). Church services and business are discussed in the film as images of gunslingers linger in the background.

The park goes belly up, and the congregation has to struggle for a new home. Many of its members had invested in the ill-fated venture. In the meantime, the church’s efforts on behalf of then-incumbent Attorney General Phill Kline come for naught when he’s beaten in the fall election.

Because of the bizarre setting of the church and the church’s unwavering support for the then-unpopular Kline, the events now seem downright comical. When asked if they knew that Fox’s ministry was in trouble or that the theme park was doomed, Winston says, “No, we were completely shocked. The way we presented (the crisis) in the film was how we learned about what had happened. We were really excited about the theme park, actually. We wanted to see it in action, but we never got to go there when it was open because it was open for such a short time.”

It’s doubtful that Winston and Cohen would have gotten that close to Fox’s congregation or the park if they had taken an adversarial approach.

“Audiences are kind of groomed on the documentaries of Michael Moore or, God help us, Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). There’s been an expectation of a certain rivalry between the filmmaker and the subject. That’s certainly not the only way to make a movie. Ours harkens back to a much older documentary tradition where the subjects help us make the film, they’re collaborators. We have to be friends with these folks,” says Winston.

The film version of What’s the Matter with Kansas? features no voiceover narration and no rebuttal when the subjects state their beliefs. Winston says it’s because as a Chicagoan, he’s aware of what it’s like to have outsiders stereotype him.

“We wanted to bust through any stereotypes people in the other parts of the country might have about Midwesterners,” says Winston. “(Chicagoans) are just as sick of having coastal folks holding their noses down at us Kansans are.”

That pesky Eighth Commandment

Author Thomas Frank
At the same time, it’s hard to keep a straight face when one family visits a creationist museum in Kentucky or when college student Brittany Barden declares that she wants the country to return to the values of its Christian founders. Frank, who has a PhD in history explains that many of the founders weren’t Christian at all. For example, Thomas Jefferson altered his Bible to suit his own theological tastes.

“I’ve touched it with my own hands,” says Frank. “Jefferson just cut out the passages he didn’t like. If you’re a true believer, this is an act of blasphemy. Or take Tom Paine, who is Glenn Beck’s favorite founding father. Have you ever read The Age of Reason? It’s one of the most savage attacks on Christianity ever written. (John) Adams was a Unitarian. Ask the people who think the fathers were Christians what they think of Unitarians, they don’t think too highly of them.”

Most of the finished film takes place in 2006 when Republicans lost seats in national and state races in Kansas, but it closes with Barden attending Patrick Henry College ready to fight another day. “There was a feeling about a year ago when Obama was elected that the right had been vanquished. That’s just not the case, as we are all seeing now,” says Frank.

The author is also quick to blame Democrats for their recent troubles in the polls because many seem to take their working class constituency and activist base for granted.

“They compromise and compromise and sell out their base. The traditional theory here in Washington is that the two parties are mirror images of each other. But I don’t think that’s the case,” Frank says.

 “The Republicans really respect and even abase themselves before the conservative wing, whereas in the Democratic Party, the great measurement of your merit is how well you stand up to the liberals.”

No place like home

Frank calls his weekly column “The Tilting Yard,” and he and Winston sound as if they are genuinely interested in talking with viewers about the film and its subject matter. “(Q&As) are always very lively,” says Winston. “Kansans are always our toughest audience because they’ll always say, ‘What do you mean what’s the matter with Kansas?’ But people in the Midwest really get the movie best.

“We’ve shown it in New York and San Francisco and places like that. Audiences on the coasts seem more like we did a film about something very far away, like we did a film on Tanzania or something like that. When we show it in Kansas, Oklahoma or Illinois, it’s like we’re showing them their in-laws, brothers, sister or parents, so it’s much more personal.”

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.