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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > What's the Matter With Kansas?

MOVIE REVIEWS

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? (2010)

Featuring Alyssa Barden, Brittany Barden, Dawn Barden, Matthew Barden, Nicholas Barden, Rob Barden, Tiffany Barden, Brad Bennett, Cindie Bennett, Julie Burkhart, Angel Dillard, Katy Dillard, Reagan Dillard, Rob Dillard, Thomas Etheredge, Hilda Flores, Jose Flores, Pastor Terry Fox, Thomas Frank, Mark Gietzen, Dan Glickman, Garrett Harmon, Connie Kelly, Steve LaRue, M.T. Liggett, Bob Lippoldt, Dr. Jason Lisle, Terry McLachlan, Reuben Mendoza, Velia Mendoza, Troy Newman, Randy Roberts, Lynn Schneider, Penney Schwab, Dale Swenson, Donn Teske, Kathy Teske, Tyler Teske and Zachary Teske.

Directed by Joe Winston.

Distributed by Tallgrass Films.  90 minutes.  Not Rated.

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What's the Matter With Kansas?

Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller What’s the Matter With Kansas? took on an interesting conundrum in the shadow of the Bush election.  The political writer and native Kansan could not quite figure out how his home state – which had been a bastion for radicals and liberals for generations – had over time become a staunchly… even suffocatingly… conservative state.  He wondered how the Republican Party had been able to distract the average Kansan with wedge issues that often did not even affect them – such as religious differences, homosexuality, abortion and gun control – so that they did not notice that they were voting against their own self-interests as far as taxes, employment, health care and farm subsidies were concerned. 

The movie that was inspired by the book is a very different animal – though that does not necessarily mean it is not extremely interesting in its own way.  It’s more like a mostly impartial dispatch from Tea Party nation – allowing several of those Kansans to plead their cases… or in some cases spout their rhetoric. 

It’s not necessarily a “fair and balanced” view of the political discourse – in the ironic words of most of these Kansans’ preferred “newsgathering” organization, FOX News – simply because in the movie… as apparently in Kansas in general… the more moderate or progressive voices are simply way outnumbered by the conservatives.  In fact, the most moderate – and most interesting and likable – character here, a struggling farmer and through necessity part-time lobbyist named Donn Teske seems to be not so much a lone Democratic voice as a disillusioned former Republican. 

Otherwise, the progressive sections of the film seem to be author Frank taking the filmmakers on a tour of Kansan radical sites, some of the co-workers of slain abortionist Dr. George Tiller and a moderate politician who has to for political survival change his affiliation from Democratic to Republican.  (According to the DVD commentary, he went back to the Democratic Party as part of the Obama wave in 2008 after the filming was completed.) 

Then there is folk artist M.T. Liggett, a fascinating and cantankerous old character who seems to not have any political affiliation – but makes it his life’s work to piss off both sides of the debate. 

Many of the conservatives are surprisingly thoughtful and reasoned.  In particular there is Angel Dillard, a religious singer, farmer, mother and anti-abortion activist.  Though I don’t necessarily agree with Angel’s viewpoints she presented them with reason and passion and I do truly respect her.  She is a fascinating person with a much more diverse background than you would imagine. 

Other families though like the Bardens – a smug home-schooled girl and her religious freak mother who spout their very questionable beliefs and false statistics as if they were written in stone – point out the scariest aspects of Palin Nation.  This is particularly noticeable in a segment where the family takes a trip to a pro-Creation theme park, where a fast-talking guide tries glibly and shallowly to debunk such ideas as the Big Bang and evolution.  There is also an extremely annoying shot of one of the Barden boys whining that the Democrats bought or stole the election during the 2006 midterm elections which briefly returned the Dems to control of the House and the Senate. 

You also get to spend a lot of time with Pastor Terry Fox, a controversial preacher who was eventually fired because he always used the pulpit as a political soap box. 

However, filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen try not to judge, simply allowing their subjects to state their cases and letting life work itself out as it does. 

Sometimes their beliefs are tested – like when a joint Wild West Theme Park/Super Church turns out to be a ponzi scheme, defrauding many of people of thousands of dollars.  However, for better or worse they all seem to decide it was God’s will that they lose the money. 

I do wish that the film spent a little more time looking at the theme of the book and giving both sides of the story.  There are two early scenes – a Democratic candidate going door-to-door and being turned away for his party beliefs and another of a lonely Democrat manning the Kansas Democrats booth at the state fair – that I wish were expanded on as the film went on. 

That said, What’s the Matter With Kansas? does a fine job of giving a political movement a face and a voice.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 18, 2011.

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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 18, 2011.