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.