Last Thursday “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” enjoyed its World Premiere screening at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. It’s taken this long for Laura and Joe and Milo to return home (okay, so we had some fun over the weekend running around Manhattan and taking in museums, etc.) and recover enough energy to properly reflect on a very exciting evening for us.
First of all, we got royal treatment at Lincoln Center. The Walter Reade theater is a magnificent place to view a film. The guy working the concession stand even gave Laura some free popcorn. This was the first time we got to view our recently-struck HD master. We couldn’t believe how crisp and lovely it looked. There’s nothing like having your film viewed the way it was meant to be seen.
Before the film, Laura and Joe addressed the packed house and asked for a show of hands – who’d even been to Kansas? We were shocked when a couple dozen hands shot up. For a state with only 3 million people in it, Kansans seem to pop up everywhere — maybe we attract them.
The movie was very well-received by our rapt audience who laughed and gasped in all the right places. The only livelier crowds had enjoyed a cocktail or two beforehand. Once the credits rolled, we took the stage again. Rather than do a traditional Q & A, we gave a short four-minute speech which answered all the main questions people always ask us (how did you find the people who appear in the movie, what did you have to leave out, etc.?) Then Laura and Joe handed over the microphone to Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of Political Science and Sociology at CUNY, who led a panel discussion: “The Future of Conservatism: a Debate.”
Piven’s fellow panelists were Joe Conason of the New York Observer and Salon.com, Kathryn Lopez, online editor of the National Review, conservative author Ryan Sager, and New York Times magazine editor Chris Suellentrop.
Frances Fox Piven: “This movie isn’t really just about Thomas Frank’s book. With uncommon empathy, it very closely delves into the lives of members of the Christian fundamentalist community — their pastor, their church, where they live, where they work. And of course we get to know other sorts of Kansans as well. We really get a sense of who these people are. It is was a social scientist would call an ethnography, but an ethnography on film. It also begs us to ask provocative questions about the role of evangelicals in the future of American politics.”
Joe Conason, “First of all, I want to say how wonderful I think the movie is. As somebody who’s had a book of his made into a documentary… Tom Frank is very fortunate in the people who chose to make this film.” (laughter)
“Watching the film, I felt tremendous empathy for the families who are portrayed, and I thought ‘how great would it be if a filmmaker were to make a documentary film about three liberal families to show to the Christian Right community, so they would understand how, at this point, two-thirds of the country lives and feels.”
Kathryn Lopez: “I love the idea of this movie as a sequel to the book. I think all too often we dump something out there, then each side takes their position on it, and there is no conversation about it. I think this stands out as something different, because it is a look at these people’s lives, and trying to get a sense of knowing them.
“I would encourage conservatives who go out and make propaganda movies, as the left often does, to not make the propaganda movie, but to follow this model – don’t just seek out the most extreme people on the other side, but start a conversation.”
Ryan Sager: “One of the most striking things is how interested God is in how we spend our money and who we give it to. [laughter] I found the movie very well done, and very carefully done, as far as keeping any point of view out, and trying to build empathy for the families.
“However, I don’t see how Democrats can now suddenly have a dialog with religious conservatives. If anything, this movie shows me that there really isn’t a way to reach a large part of the population.”
Chris Suellentrop: “I’m from Kansas. I love the state. I really liked the movie. I loved watching the state I grew up in. But Tom makes the point that the popular culture derides Kansans, doesn’t respect them. And, despite how much empathy there is for the protagonists and characters in the movie, I felt some of that derision and ridicule coming from the audience (at Lincoln Center.)”
We’ve participated in panel discussions after previous screenings, but this was our first time putting one together ourselves. A big hat tip to our interns, Kat Wang and Tracy Meyer, for finding, researching and tracking down the speakers. We were really amazed and honored at the caliber of people we secured. Everyone had smart and unpredictable things to say, and no one held anything back as far as political opinion. We were spared any protests or demonstrations. A mention of the fatal shooting of Dr. George Tiller triggered the sharpest exchange between audience and panelist (about whether to call the murder a “shooting” or an “assassination.”)
Regarding Chris Suellentrop’s reservations – we can report that the Wichita audiences laughed at all the same jokes that New Yorkers found funny. The humor in the movie is largely observational, and on the occasions you find yourself starting to chuckle at a character’s eccentricities, ten minutes later you’re shedding a tear for them.
Of course, the forty minutes or so of discussion did not resolve just what role evangelicals and so-called “values issues” will play in forthcoming elections. For our part, we felt that just having this discussion — what do Kansans think and why? – on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was a constructive act in itself.
After the panel, we all moved over to a wine-and-cheese reception in a room on the other side of the theater lobby. Joe gave an interview to Voice of America and Laura entertained the Huffington Post and some other journalists who were there. Perhaps noting her pregnant condition, no one offered her any wine. And Joe always forgets to eat at these functions. This showed the trickiest part of being a filmmaker at a fancy fete — because so many people want to talk to you, when it comes to getting decent snacks, you’re on your own.
NOTE: all photos were taken by Zach Roberts.