The film based on Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What's The Matter With Kansas? is a subtle yet revealing portrait of the religious right and how it continues to influence politics in this region of the country.
It’s an important film that could have been made in Oklahoma as well as Kansas. It was shown last weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Frank was in Oklahoma City and answered questions after the Saturday’s showings. I saw the film Sunday.
The documentary film is not confrontational in, say, the tradition of Michael Moore’s movies. Instead, it allows the main characters—some of whom are quite likable—to define themselves without any director's irony or intrusion. Many of the film’s characters are members of a religious right movement that focuses on anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality protests. The self-defeating results of the movement’s narrow focus becomes clear as the film ends, but director Joe Winston never intrudes with dogma.
The movie, like the book, tries to answer the question of why Kansas became such a “bastion” of conservatism despite its early radical history, which included heavy popular support for socialism. I used the word “tries” because the film never gives an explicit answer. This is not a failure of the film, but the difficult reality of trying to frame motivation. Why do these religious right folks believe like they do? What motivates them into political action? Is it a basic fear of modernity, a looming sense that they are getting left behind?
At one point in the film, a new church begins at an amusement park called Wild West World. The bifurcation of the park and church makes viewers wonder which is the more fictional, the amusement park with its dressed-up cowboys or the church members with their obsessive focus on abortion and homosexuality? But, again, the material is not presented in a heavy-handed manner. The theme park eventually goes bankrupt, and the church has to move on.
At another point in the film, a mother condemns secular universities as evil places where defenseless children lose their religious faith. Criticism of academia from the right is nothing new, but the mother’s comments come off as passionate, sincere and even caring. She’s not a stereotype. She really believes it.
Frank’s book and the movie are especially relevant to progressives in Oklahoma. The state has become increasingly conservative over the last three decades or so, and Oklahoma has several religious-right politicians who focus on cultural issues, such as abortion, to win votes.
What’s The Matter With Kansas? specifically documents how the religious right has politicized itself in the so-called heartland and become a powerful force in state politics. As wages remain stagnant, as millions remain without adequate health care, as unemployment rises, the religious right continues with its narrow, cultural agenda. It may have been repudiated in the 2006 and 2008 national elections, but it remains alive and well in Kansas, Oklahoma and other nearby states.
(You can order a DVD of the film here.)
Blog Receives Two Nominations
Okie Funk has been nominated for Best Overall Blog and Best Political Blog in the fourth annual Okie Blog Awards contest.
State bloggers nominate and vote on their favorite blogs in the contest, which is operated by Mike Hermes. Hermes publishes the popular Okiedoke blog. You can find a list and links to all the nominated blogs and directions on how to vote here. The voting is open for Oklahoma bloggers through Feb.7.
Okie Funk has won the Best Political Blog award the past two years. Blue Oklahoma, a community blog I help operate, has also been nominated for Best Overall Political Blog.
The list of nominees shows once again the vibrancy and diversity of the Oklahoma blogging community. I urge everyone, whether you’re voting or not, to take the time to click through the list.
The World Against Bates
Speaking of blogs and bloggers, Michael Bates, the author of the popular Batesline blog, was recently sued for libel over a commentary he wrote about the Tulsa World that was published in Urban Tulsa Weekly.
The World initially sued Urban Tulsa Weekly as well, but later dropped it from the suit when the publication printed a retraction. Here is a recent story about the suit published in The World. Here is its initial story, which includes a pdf of the lawsuit. The pdf includes Bates’ article. Here is information from Batesline about the suit. The lawsuit claims the commentary contained inaccurate information about the newspaper’s circulation.
Bates and I are at different places on the political spectrum, but I believe continuing the lawsuit against him at this point is frivolous. It might even backfire on The World.
Urban Tulsa Weekly has printed a correction. What else does The World want? Do the publisher, editors and reporters at The World no longer believe retracting and correcting published information is an acceptable method for a publication and its writers to set the record straight concerning the work of one of its reporters/contributors? In other words, do they believe The World itself should allow its own reporters/contributors to face damages in a libel lawsuit against them even though it corrects the story in question? Doesn’t this lawsuit actually encourage people to sue newspapers and their writers for libel? Doesn’t it give potential plaintiffs a very specific legal opening to sue writers at The World even if the newspaper corrects a story someone claims is libelous?
It’s highly unusual for a newspaper to sue for libel since publications are most often on the other side of such lawsuits. Why encourage people through example? Yet these are new times for newspapers, which are in a financial decline and compete with a myriad of new media outlets. Both The World and The Oklahoman have recently cut their workforce.
After writing about Fahrenheit 911, it dawned on me that I had seen another important film recently. The film, Banned in Oklahoma, covers the Oklahoma censorship debacle beginning in 1997 over the Academy Award winning movie The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), which was based on Gunter Grass's 1959 novel. Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.
Here's an abbreviated version of the censorship case:
In 1997, Bob Anderson, the head of a local right-wing extremist organization, Oklahoma For Children and Families (OCAF), was able to manipulate Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman to rule the movie contained child pornography. Anderson took the film to police, complaining it was obscene. The police then took it to Freeman. (Remember, this is an Academy Award-winning film. It was produced in 1979, and no reasoning person would consider it obscene, especially nearly twenty years after the movie's release! Boring, yes; obscene, absolutely not.)
Consequently, then Oklahoma City District Attorney Bob Macy ordered the film confiscated, and police took the film from local libraries, six local video stores, and three individuals, one of whom happened to be a staff member of the local American Civil Liberties Union.
Later the film was ruled not obscene, but not before Oklahoma City had been depicted nationally, once again, as a backwards, ignorant city without culture and without any respect for art.
The Tin Drum, directed by Volker Schlondorff, depicts the life of the child Oskar, who refuses to grow up beyond the age of three or give up the tin drum he plays relentlessly throughout his life until he wills himself to grow. In the film, which is an anti-Nazi polemic, the stunted Oskar has sex with a young woman. The sex scene is a typical, simulated under-the-covers encounter, extremely tame by contemporary standards. The brief sex scene is secondary to the film's political and aesthetic messages.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the prized Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or award.
But the fact the film had won these prestigious awards didn't make our city's right-wing extremists hesitate for even a second.
I remember going to a screening of The Tin Drum during this time at a Norman coffeehouse because it was still legal in Cleveland County and every other county in the state (how absurd!), buying my t-shirt to help the cause, and listening to the ACLU staff member, Michael Camfield, play his guitar and sing a song criticizing the judge's ludicrous decision.
It was the second time I had seen the film. I had watched the film and read the novel in the early 1980s because it was a class requirement in an English course I was taking at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I love the novel, but the film to me is overly symbolic, pretentiously artistic, and boring. The second viewing of the film did not change my mind.
But the film Banned in Oklahoma, which I saw recently with a lively audience at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is anything but boring. It shows Camfield and Anderson pitted against one another in a type of illogical, absurd culture war only our state (and maybe states such as, say, Mississippi and Alabama) could produce. The film's director and producer, University of Oklahoma Professor Gary D. Rhodes, is careful to give Anderson his viewpoint in the film, and thus the close-minded, moralistic curmudgeon Anderson indicts himself.
Our country would simply cease to exist as a democracy if people such as Anderson were allowed to dictate our cultural realities.
Camfield, meanwhile, comes off as somewhat loony at points in the film, but he is full of life, energy and humor unlike the sanctimonious, sour Anderson. Given a choice between Anderson's bleak, ugly, moralistic world and Camfield's off-the-wall improvisation, there is really no choice. The film shows Camfield having fun with his ensuing lawsuit, one he unfortunately does not win in the end. The film is eventually ruled not obscene, of course, and the libraries and video stores win, but Camfield's suit was based not on the obscenity issue but on wrongful search and seizure.
Rhodes intersperses the film with a subtle regional wit and irony, and that ultimately is what makes the film compelling and interesting. The photography is pure Okie funk (yes, I know it's the name of my blog) and/or American Gothic, which means the irony folds back unto itself by turning what might be considered ugly into retrospective art. At the same time, the film never bashes Oklahoma. This is a real achievement. Rhodes has to be lauded for the film's controlled tone and voice, which resonates without reverting to condescending sarcasm.
Ultimately, though, the film depicts something dark and foreboding. It shows the Oklahoma City power structure capable of supreme ignorance and borderline fascist behavior. To ban an Academy Award winning film in the city twenty years after its release and then to seize copies of the film is simply without parallel in the annals of idiotic decisions. Or, perhaps more worrisome, it is a preview of our future in this country if we remain under the control of right-wing extremists. This, of course, is a far more horrific conclusion.
Banned in Oklahoma is a tremendous contribution to Oklahoma art and culture, and I encourage everyone to attend a local screening or order the film from its excellent director and writer.