Friday, July 30, 2010

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS gets its theatrical release; short filmmaker Q&A

TrustMovies first reviewed this film when it had its official, public world-premiere last August, courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Independents Night series at the Walter Reade Theater. As it is finally receiving its deserved NYC theatrical opening, here's that post again:

The question “What’s the matter with Kansas?” should immediately bring to mind Thomas Frank’s best-seller on the subject. That’s good, since the documentary film of the same name is based on Mr. Frank’s book. I have read only selections from this book, which uses our great state of Kansas to make clear how the Republican Party, in tandem with the evangelical Christian movement, has boondoggled Americans into believing that it today represents the common man. I'll let Mr. Frank's sterling words speak for themselves in the three paragraphs below:

The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the “silent majority,” or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the “regular Americans,” or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the “red states.”

And then think of the political changes that this sappy stuff has helped to sell: Privatization. Deregulation. Monopolies in every industry from banking to radio to meatpacking. The destruction of the welfare state. The beatdown of the labor movement. The transformation of the Midwest into the rust belt. And, shimmering in the heavens above all this, the rise of a new plutocracy, a class of overlords so taken with their own magnificence that they are moved to compare themselves to the Almighty.

What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly -- a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy “elite” while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.

How, in god's name, has
all this
happened? That's what Mr. Frank's book and now this movie, directed & edited by Joe Winston (shown, far left) & produ-
ced by Laura Cohen (near left), help make clear. The filmmakers accomplish this by offering us -- up close and personal, in some detail, and with the blessing of the people themselves -- how certain Kansans think, feel, believe and behave.

Here comes Angel Dillard, a gung-ho-for-god mom and churchgoer with a lovely family, a beautiful voice and a backstory that pulls the rug right out from under your preconceptions; M.T. Liggett, an artist from Mullinville, KS, and a crusty, speak-out kind of guy who, I believe, has been seen in at least one other documentary (though not at the length he is shown here: That's he above, right, during the actual filming); Donn Teske (shown below), president of the Farmer's Union, a former Republican who turned independent due to the arrogance of the Bush administration; the Pastor Terry Fox (together with his flock), who manages to use the most bizarrely inappropriate (or maybe it's quite appropriate) "snake" metaphor to describe his church; Brittany Barden, a young girl from an Evangelical family who makes her quiet way toward admission to the country's premier religious school, Patrick Henry college; and many other Kansans of both right and left leaning views.

Because Mr. Winston uses no narration nor commentary, we only hear what the characters on view have to tell us. This is plenty, and we can draw our own conclusions. Filmed over several years, the movie takes us up to and just after the 2006 elections, at which point the leftward swing begins to be felt. Although the film spends more time with its Republican, Evangelical participants, we do get to hear and see some of the state's populist champions, one of whom explains that our country's radical/populist tradition began in the Midwest states. In the 1912 election, Kansas actually went for socialist Eugene Debs, and some of the work of Margaret Sanger was first published here. Who knew? Not this particular "lefty."

Although the movie ends after the 2006 Republican congressional routing, there is no feeling of relief or sense of closure in store. We spend our last minutes with Brittany Barden (shown above, center) at her college, where the fight for Christian control of the USA continues apace. With, as usual, blithe disregard of our country's founders' insistence on separation of Church and State, the good pastor explains, "The only hope for America is for the righteous to get involved in politics." And if the "righteous" happen to be wrong? Yet there's not a shred of doubt in the mind of any of the evangelicals we see here. This alone should scare the pants off intelligent viewers -- those, at least, who do not imagine themselves to be the recipients of god's word.

What's the Matter With Kansas opens today at a brand new New York screen: IndieHouse Cinema on Manhattan's West 44th Street. You can check location and screening times here.

TrustMovies heard from Joe Winston via phone just after the latter had landed here in New York City for the Lincoln Center premiere, and since the director had a few free moments to chat, that's what we did.

TrustMovies: What is Thomas Frank's feeling about your finished film?

Joe Winston: Tom has been with us the whole way. We knew Tom a little bit because we were all in Chicago, at least when he wrote the book. Then he moved to D.C. We optioned the book from him, and he gave us all his contacts, and we have now spoken to pretty much everybody that he spoke to. We still had to do our own research, though, and the main characters in the movie we found on our own.

The FSLC calls this the "world premier" of your movie. This is really the first time it's been seen? And will it have a further life here in NYC and elsewhere?

This is the only NYC screening we have lined up. And, in a sense, it is a world premier because all earlier screenings have been works-in-progress. This is the first public screening of the finished film -- which will also play in Chicago for one week, September 18-24.

My next question may have more to do with me and my hugely anti-religious feeling than with the film itself, but I was left at the end of the movie with a real pit in my stomach due to the final things we see and hear at the Christian University.

Well, our movie captures a snapshot of a moment in time when the the coalition of the American Evangelical movement and the Republican Party was beginning to come apart at the seams. We wanted to remind audiences that these people are not going away, just because they have lost a couple of elections.

I can understand why the people who were in your film could then watch the film and believe that you were on their side. Because you simply let them speak and say what they want to.

We told everyone that we were interested in them. In what they thought -- and why. And we were. We assured them we would not use any voice-overs nor commentary nor any extra narration. And so every spoken word in the movie comes out of the mouth of one of its characters.

I was also surprised at some of the things I leaned from the film: the state's liberal/progressive history.

In fact, the Midwest is the seat of some the nation earliest progessive movement.

Do have a distributor lined up for your film at this point?

We are in talks with several distributors now, which is one reason we're here in NYC. But, you know, the new wave of independent filmmakers is no longer that dependent on outside distribution. If we need or want to, we can self-distribute.

What's your film background prior to this documentary?

I have edited a lot of documentary TV shows. And I also directed and edited The Burning Man Festival movie.

You asked earlier what Tom Frank thought about this movie, so if you want to hear and learn more you can do it most easily via this site at YouTube.

(All photos are from the film itself,
except that of Winston & Cohen, at top, which is by Jim Newberry.)

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