Manhattan, Kansas

During one of the final scenes of Tara Wray’s observant autobiographical documentary, Manhattan, Kansas (IMDB), Tara’s mother, Evie, seeking forgiveness for being an irresponsible parent or simply trying to understand herself, tells her daughter, “The past is over.” Of course, as William Faulkner reminds us and as Wray’s film illustrates, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” The scene, for me, underscores the ways in which Manhattan, Kansas offers a fresh and understated consideration of the concepts of family and home through its unblinking look at the strained relationship between Wray and her mother.

Manhattan, Kansas focuses on Tara’s attempts to reconcile with her mother after rarely speaking to or seeing her for over six years. Raised exclusively by her mother (Tara reports that she never met her father until she was 21), Tara accepts her mother’s eccentricities as normal, but gradually becomes estranged when her mother’s eccentric behavior crosses a line and becomes increasingly erratic and potentially dangerous, with Evie threatening at one point to drive their car into a river, killing them both. Because Evie is never diagnosed with a psychological disorder, Tara notes that it remains difficult to describe or even understand their relationship. Is her mother an eccentric rebel whose behavior constitutes her best response to a confining status quo that included a strict Mormon upbringing? Or is she bi-polar or manic depressive and in need of medication? While these questions are never clearly answered by the film, they do underline the ways in which having a language for talking about a relationship (or a psychological ailment) can help us to understand it. And when Tara confesses from under the covers of her bed on her first night in Kansas, a kitten crawling on her shoulders, that she and her mother “had a semi-normal conversation,” it illustrates that self-doubt one might have when dealing with a mentally ill parent.

As we learn early in the film, Tara and her mother have been estranged for several years, ever since Tara left her home in Manhattan, Kansas, to attend a study abroad program in Finland and eventually to settle in New York City, where she works at NYU. During an early monologue, Tara speculates that she often feels as if she should have been raised in Manhattan, New York, instead of the Kansas city of the same name (which often refers to itself as “The Little Apple” in a self-aware nod to the more famous city of the same name), that her small studio apartment in New York feels more like home than where she actually grew up, living in twenty or so apartments and houses over the first twenty years of her life. Tara’s appraisal of the stability offered by her life in New York touches upon some questions I’ve been rethinking lately, both professionaly and personally, about the ways in which we define home (and perhaps, how our homes define us).

Central to this question of defining home is Evie’s desire to locate the Geodetic Center of the United States, the point form which all measurements of the United States are taken, a virtually invisible site situated on a ranch near Hunter, Kansas. For Evie, the Geodetic Center represents an opportunity at reconciliation for herself and perhaps even a broader reconciliation with the US itself. While this reconciliation takes an unexpected turn I won’t reveal here, I think it touches on the mother’s eccentricties but also, potentially, her far less direct search for home. And while some of the scenes featuring Evie emphasize how her eccentricities and mental illness might negatively affect her daughter (Tara comments severl times that she felt like the parent in their relationship), scenes such as the visit to the Geodetic Center also illustrate Evie’s often wry humor and her awareness of their complicated relationship, and it’s important to note that during several key scenes, Tara and her mother are able to share laughs at the warped world around them.

Because of my interest in autobiographical documentary and the use of home video in documentary, I’ve been curious to see Manhattan, Kansas ever since I first heard about it over a year ago when it was still in production, and while Wray’s film makes extensive use of brief home video clips and family photographs, it’s Wray’s ability to show how those images of family haunt the present that I found most compelling. While watching home movies with Evie’s sisters, Tara remarks at the footage of her dressed in boy’s clothing, her hair often cut like a boy’s as well. Fascinated by this forgotten image of herself, Tara expresses wonder that she would have wanted to dress that way. Other photographs and home movie footage depict an apparently happy mother-daughter relationship, one that may or may not have reflected Tara and Evie’s actual experience. There’s even a nice self-conscious touch here when Tara’s aunt comments in passing that watching home movies is “boring,” allowing the aunt to admit for the film that perhaps that looking into the quotidian experiences of others isn’t always exciting.

Like Scott Weinberg, I admired Wray’s low-key, introspective approach to this material. Unlike many autobiographical documentaries, Wray is careful to question her own motives for turning her mother into a public figure, admitting at one point her guilt at potentially expoliting her mother for the sake of a documentary. But I also think that what Weinberg calls the “smallness” of Wray’s story is quite deceptive in that Manhattan, Kansas is dealing with some big ideas, taking the “home movie” documentary genre and asking us to rethink our concepts of home and family in some fairly profound ways.

Manhattan, Kansas received an Audience Award at South by Southwest and will be playing here in the Carolinas in the Southern Circuit film series. It will be playing in New York as part of the Independents Night film series sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on August 10.

9 Comments »

  1. Evie Wray Said,

    August 19, 2006 @ 4:31 pm

    I love these wanna be something but not sure what types. …The critics of someone else’s life! The kind that can’t do it so they ridicule others that can.

    It was nice to have a social worker from NYC’s finest attend the Lincoln Center showing. Interesting that a professional in the field, upon viewing the movie Manhattan,KS, saw nothing that could define a bipolar person or a mentally ill or mentally challanged one, either.

    Funny that an opinion of some critic is called truth? Oh yea, just an opinion. That’s right, I don’t give a rat’s ass about opinions, I have a real life, I suggest all the gossip mongers get THAT!

    Look at some art, it will do you all a world of evolution.
    evie wray

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 19, 2006 @ 5:54 pm

    I’ll be the first to admit that my interpretation of Manhattan, Kansas isn’t the only possible interpretation. I just hope that others see it and contribute to the conversation about what I think is an intelligent and brave film.

    But your comment touches on something that I’ve thought about for a long time, namely the challenges of writing reviews or analyses of documentaries that feature real people who are far more complicated than any film can show (and the problems when a critic or reviewer plays amateur shrink). As you pointed out in this comment, there’s always more to the story than what we see on screen, which can make writing about documentary a difficult task and being the subject of a documentary even more challenging.

    Still, as David implies in his response to your comment, the “Tara vs. Evie” moments do make the “Tara and Evie” moments all the more rewarding.

  3. Seekie Said,

    September 8, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

    I am looking forward to seeing this film. I was a childhood friend of Tara and I understand what it is like to grow up in a family that is “non-traditional” for a lack of better words. Our country is full of families that could be rubber stamped with such a definition, but I think there is more going on here than ordinary dysfunction.

    Really, I think the ploblems stem from our parents having never found any solid form of identity. Tara and I had parents that were trying very hard to hold on to the tail end of a movement that was beginning to fade.

    Sometimes I think our parents had to work extra hard at being strange simply to define themselves as legitimate members of a counterculture that was looking back and laughing at the confusion its influence created.

    Sadly, our parents wanted all the joys and wonders that went along with being free spirits, consequences to the children be damned. A self centered attitude–nothing more–but I still can’t help but feel like a refugee sometimes. I miss Tara and the adventures we would have as young kids, but I don’t miss the degenerates we were surrounded with or ideologies our parents subscribed to.

    Many might respond by stating: “Tara turned out great–that confusion she had to burden as a child really played to her favor!”

    I will have to see the film in order to draw further conclusions.

    -Seekie

  4. Chuck Said,

    September 9, 2006 @ 11:23 am

    Seekie, that’s an interesting read on your experiences with the stories/events portrayed in the film. When you see it, I’d appreciate hearing your reaction to it.

  5. Agnes Varnum Said,

    October 5, 2006 @ 4:07 pm

    Chuck – I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Tara a bit at the IFP Market this year. I saw your recent post and sent it to her, and she responded by sending me this post. It’s fascinating! I think Seekie’s comment sums up my feelings about Tara. She is so bright and humorous, it’s hard to imagine the story revealed in parts by this film.

    Your response to Evie about the nature of commenting on documentaries reminds me of the other side of this kind of work: how do those of us who know/meet the subjects of such work handle knowing so much yet so little about them? I think you are right on when you wrote “there’s always more to the story than what we see on screen.”

    I haven’t asked Tara if the film has been beneficial or not to her relationship with her mother. Perhaps it’s none of my business.

  6. Chuck Said,

    October 5, 2006 @ 6:20 pm

    I’ve been following Tara’s project for a while. She emailed me about a year ago to alert me about her doc because, at the time, I was working on a (temporarily shelved) essay on documentary and home video, focusing on Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation.

    Tara’s film is an important contribution to that tradition, and the comments I’ve received from Evie Wray and Seekie have really brought home the “reality effects” of these personal docs, in terms of what they choose to include and exclude (or even how they organize these representations of the past). Interesting questions, but my mind is mush from having graded twenty papers already today.

  7. evie wray Said,

    October 14, 2006 @ 12:38 pm

    SEEKIE!!! AHA! One of my babies come home to roost awhile. I remember this one, born so close to Tara in age. When Julie brought him over the first time , he left his pacifier with me. Always the mature one.

    Course, i also remember when Bruce took Julie on a Spring break holiday and left me to care the three kids. She brought supplies…6 rolls of TP. Seekie had all six of them used up in three days. That boy had one healthy bowel!

    One of the curious aspects of my history that seems to be left out of Tara’s film is the numbers of children that i raised. All those parents that left me the dirty work to do seem to have kids that turned out okay , also.

    Sometimes a parent does something for a child (like let them make a movie with a narrow pov) for a Higher Purpose, like the money! Like the story! Like the film industry break!

    I love having a good time with this. I am top a most proud of all you kids. Each of you are adorable, to me. Each of you… a speciman of the Source of all that is.

    Best Ever More,
    Evie

  8. Angie Said,

    October 14, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

    I have seen this movie about 10 times now and I just adore Evie and Tara. The movie is such a powerful message of LOVE. We all have our bumps and warts and we grow up and look back and realize that our parents really did the best that they really could at the time and with what they were given in life themselves. I cry every time I see this movie. Did you know you can buy your very own copy of Manhattan Kansas here:
    http://www.lbthunderponyproductions.com/ManhattanKansas-Buy.htm

    Evie is such a beautiful spirit and her art inspires me to no end. Wanna see her art?
    go to http://www.eviewrayartist.com

    Love to Tara & Evie!

  9. Chuck Said,

    October 16, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

    Angie, thanks for the pointer to Evie’s art. There’s some very cool stuff available.

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