Kansas has long served as a powerful metaphor for our country. When L. Frank Baum first wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he chose Kansas as his setting for idyll, peace, comfort and safety, a home that there was “no place like.” Even earlier, Dodge City became a metaphor for the Wild West, a place of independence and ruthlessness, where a man’s mettle would surely be tested and everyone walked around with a careless swagger. As Kansas reached statehood and matured into the Union, it was long a hot-bed of radical, populist and socialist ideas. Kansas, considered a center of early 20th century Progressivism, was also a metaphor for the hard-working individual with a social conscience.
Today Kansas still offers itself up as metaphor, but now the echoes are of an ultra-conservative, religion-centric inflexibility built from such images as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Dover school district, the former infamous for its aggressive anti-gay tactics and the latter for its ignominious attempt to force religion into the school district’s science curriculum.
Kansas has changed, and so have we all.
What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a documentary by Laura Cohen and Joe Winston (based on the 2004 book by Thomas Frank) washes the screen with those metaphors in beautiful hues, stark contrasts and–often–with probing insight and irony. Following the paths of several key figures across political, personal and religious landscapes, the filmmakers draw a surrealistic portrait of a changed Kansas, one where social issues determine political affiliations, sometimes in direct contrast with an individual’s own interests.
The movie doesn’t preach: there is no narration, no specific storyline, no “Michael Moore” moment designed to get us all whipped up. There is balance and delicacy and respect, yet still you may be left with the feeling that something remains missing. Watching the movie at home on a quiet Friday evening (and having recently read the book as well), what struck me was the feeling that the movie’s main character–the key protagonist–was always off screen. That protagonist–the political engine that depends on marketing and money and messaging to create its preferred political culture, one designed to keep the elected, elected–may be the film’s single most powerful character.
For me, awareness of that off-screen protagonist doubled the movie’s impact. I recommend the documentary–which Roger Ebert named one of his ten best last year–for all who want a quiet yet striking insight into the workings of our political landscape.