3 disasters connected to Kansas I’ve watched happen recently:
1. What’s the Matter with Kansas?
The murder of Dr. George Tiller in his church and the closing of his Kansas City clinic have shocked and saddened much of the world, particularly feminists, supporters of Planned Parenthood and (many of) the 50 million women who have ended pregnancies since Roe v. Wade. Since Tiller’s death, I’ve been following the blog chatter on the Facebook site of Chicago filmmakers Laura Cohen and Joe Winston for their film What’s the Matter with Kansas , as well as watching their video excerpts of Tiller included in a June 3rd Salon  piece.
Cohen and Winston optioned Thomas Frank’s well-known book of the same name, and have just completed a feature-length documentary that investigates the cultural and political history of Kansas as well as the volatile climate around abortion and gay rights. Franks’ book and the film both start with the premise—Why does the poorest state out of all 50 states continue to vote against its own economic interests — i.e. Republican?
The answers are not economic, but socio-political. The state seems to have voted for the Republican party primarily because of gay marriage and abortion — two divisive issues that hit the heartland in potent and violent ways.
Cohen and Winston’s film is not easily dismissive of people who oppose abortion or Charles Darwin. (The film does visit the Darwin-denying Creation Museum  in Kentucky -- “Welcome and Prepare to Believe”). On the contrary, their Kansas subjects demonstrate the sincerity of their emotions. In fact, one subject admits on camera to having had an abortion as one of the reasons behind her commitment to fundamentalist values and ideologies. The film’s blog contains similar comments from a woman who regrets the abortion she received from Tiller, but in no way supports his murder. Other blog comments on their site, however, are not as kind .
What’s the Matter with Kansas is a thoughtful investigation into the emotions and politics surrounding the conservative religious movement in a state that was once known for founding Populism and supporting labor unions. The replacement of radical union organizers with radical fundamentalists follows an ambivalent trail of tears through the Midwest that Cohen and Winston connect to threats against Tiller’s life, and now, tragically, to his death.
ABC premiered another post-apocalyptic vision of the world last week, similar to the 1983 broadcast of The Day After , which imagined Lawrence, Kansas during and immediately after a devastating nuclear attack. Flash-forward another hundred years, and audiences now get to imagine an environmental holocaust, hosted by head injury survivor Bob Woodruff. Woodruff looks great, and the show is imaginative, engaging and horrifying enough to run ads for anti-depressants during it. It lives up to The Day After comparison.
Earth 2100  builds from an animated, graphic novel-style narrative about 'Lucy' and her family who live through a series of environmentally-related disasters that redefine their world—ocean-levels rising on the coast, extreme droughts and water shortages, violent border wars with starving immigrants, and incurable diseases. The narrative is interrupted by equally frightening interviews with scientists, journalists and political figures, such as John Podesta, describing how Lucy’s story is not science fiction, but a plausible future. (The conservative blogosphere  hated the show…).
As the narrative and weather problems advance, Lucy and her family give up on San Diego and drive to NYC, where Lucy’s husband has been hired to engineer a protective barrier wall for the advancing seas. During their dangerous drive across country, the family stops in Greensburg, Kansas, which is described as (and is currently in the process of becoming) America’s first truly “green ” city. The Discovery Channel (with Leonardo DiCaprio’s help) has produced a documentary series, now in its second season, about the Kansas town that was destroyed by a massive tornado in 2007. Greensburg  follows the real life renovation of the city and its inhabitants.
I won’t tell you the end of Earth 2100, but I found it informative enough to show to my 15 year-old son Nick, who was both engaged by the visuals and ‘creeped out’ by the doomsday scenario, particularly after the electrical grid collapses and the Internet disappears.
3.Peggy and Fred in Hell
Last Friday The Nightingale Theatre  and White Light Cinema in Chicago showed award-winning experimental filmmaker and Brown University professor Leslie Thornton’s series Peggy and Fred in Hell  (1984-2009). Seen most recently in the Whitney Biennial, Peggy and Fred is a dystopic and vaguely humorous series of films about a young brother and sister who ‘make house’ following a catastrophic disaster that has left them all alone in the world (although the TV still works).
We watch the children grow up over six years on camera and mimic the odd, unseemly behavior of adults who interact with each other via pop culture allusions and tinkering with technology. In one module of the story, Peggy and Fred in Kansas, the children’s attempts at authentic interactions are dropped in favor of singing Michael Jackson songs, pantomime shooting at each other with guns, eating chips, and trying to break dance. (Fortunately, both actors have incredibly charming moments. These children are endlessly watchable…like cute animals in cages.)
Thornton appeared via Skype on a computer to introduce the screening, which was appropriate since Thornton’s work is all about interactive process. (She admitted to having just finished editing the version we saw three days before the screening.) Thornton has been shooting, editing, finding new footage and reediting the work as Peggy and Fred have grown up and the world (of the viewer) has changed. Suddenly, the apocalyptic outdoor scenery includes storms and waves that almost certainly signify Katrina to the viewer.
The world may change, but the sense of disaster and absent grown-ups persists in these films. Only the children survive in this postmodern hell… _____________________________
We sit at the cusp of a world population and environmental crisis. We should be distributing free birth control globally to support family and environmental values. It is shameful that it takes the murder of a doctor or the devastation of an American city to bring attention to the lack of support for these issues. No wonder Fred plays shoot ‘em up games so much. At least Peggy keeps dancing in Kansas. Attitude is everything…