In the book “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland, the Civil War ends on *slightly* different terms than it did in real life, when the North and South must unite against a new mutual enemy as fields of war dead rise out of the ground as zombies, or “shamblers” as this book calls them. The institution of slavery is ended, but biracial protagonist Jane is not free to pursue any life she chooses due to the new law forcing black and Native American youth to be “re-educated” at zombie-combat schools so that they can serve as personal protectors for upper-class white people.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, it’s no secret that I am both a proud Kansan and a movie-lover, two qualities which contributed to an analysis of the fictional setting of Looper and which I shall now employ to nerd out about all the Kansas references in the new Superman movie Man of Steel.
Even though the farm grew corn instead of wheat, it felt very Kansan, as did some of the scenes when Superman flies over farmland, and the one where he gets beat up in the muddy parking lot outside “Sullivan’s Truck & Tractor Repair”.
The first official shout-out to the Sunflower State came during a flashback to a young Clark Kent struggling to focus with his hypersensitive and powerful senses in a classroom. The teacher is heard saying “…when Kansas became a territory,” and then directs her attention to the clearly disturbed boy who is freaking out that he can see everyone’s skeletons. “Clark? I asked if you could tell me who first settled Kansas?” she repeats. I absolutely loved this, because Kansas History is actually required 7th grade curriculum in this state. (I guess we can infer that Clark in in junior high in this scene!) I remember learning Kansas history, although when I read through the current curriculum standards just now (to research whether or not it was still required) I don’t remember the answers to all the suggested questions. Still, the introduction to the section on Kansas history says “The course should seek to build a connection or relationship between the student and the state,” and here I am over ten years later blogging about Kansas pride, so it must have been effective.
The second Man of Steel Kansas-specific reference was when Cark’s adopted father revealed the truth of his alien origins, showing him the ship he arrived in and the mysterious command key that was inside. “This was in the chamber with you,” he says. “I took it to a metallurgist at Kansas State. He said whatever metal it’s made of didn’t even exist in the periodic table.” That would be K-State, home of the Wildcats, in Manhattan, KS. It makes sense to me that Mr. Kent would have gone there rather than the other major university, KU, because as a fifth-generation farmer, (a fact he mentions in a later argument with Clark), he likely would have gotten an agriculture degree from K-State, so he would have more ties to and been more familiar with that campus than rival KU’s in Lawrence, KS.
Later, just before Zod takes over all televisions to send his message to the people of earth demanding Kal-El be handed over, Clark is watching a football game between at 12th-ranked KU and an unranked Lousiana Tech. This got the biggest laugh of the whole night from my audience, likely because KU athletics is definitely not known for their excellence in football. Basketball is what the Jayhawk nation is dedicated to and passionate about. As one commenter on a Kansas City Star article that mentioned the Kansas references in Man of Steel put it, “You know it’s a work of fiction because nobody watches KU football games.” It’s been “liked” twice as many times as the comment below it, that asks “I do, does that make me Superman?!!”
There was also a KU shout-out in one of the trailers for the movie, when Clark can be seen wearing a KU t-shirt. That scene must have been edited differently for the movie, because I don’t remember being able to see it in the movie itself.
It’s the tornado scene, though, which deserves its own mention here because when Mr. Kent shouts to “Go for the overpass,” I almost yelled “NO, THAT IS THE WORST PLACE TO GO!” Seriously, therearetonsof resources that will tell you thisisa terribleidea. (**update** Weather officials have responded to this scene specifically, reiterating that you should not seek shelter from a tornado under and overpass.) If you’re out driving on a highway when a tornado strikes, the safest thing to do is get out of the vehicle and lay down in the lowest possible ground you can find, like probably the ditch next to the road. The Kents should have known that. And why were there so many people out on the road anyway? Even if there wasn’t a tornado watch, (in which case most people know not to go out if they don’t have to,) that looked like more cars than you’d normally see on a Kansas Highway that isn’t the intersate…unless maybe it was a holiday weekend?
Anyway, back to Kansas references: when Superman passes out in the Kryptonian ship’s atmospherics and has a dream-state confrontation with Zod, he starts out clad in a Kansas City Royals baseball shirt. Someone in my audience at midnight let out a loud “YESSSSS!” when that shirt appeared, but everybody else only chuckled.
The filmmakers weren’t very subtle with imagery like this one of the giant American flag mural meant to symbolize Kansas being “as American as it gets.”
Finally, towards the end of the film when Superman confronts one of the military leaders about trying to follow him with a spy drone and the officer demands to know how the government can be reassured that he won’t one day betray their interests, the cheeky reply is “I grew up in Kansas, General. About as American as it gets.” That line got a decent laugh from the audience in my theater, but I didn’t really like it. I suppose that in Superman’s defense there isn’t really a good answer to that question, and maybe he was just trying to deflect it with humor. But it makes two assumptions that are neither true nor helpful in the divisive political gridlock this country seems trapped in. The first is that it assumes that the implied Midwestern values are “really” American, and people who live on the coasts or in a blue state are somehow un- or less-than American. Like it or not, the reality is that America is made up of both liberals and conservatives, that as a collective whole we share more beliefs than we care to admit, and that our system only works when we’re able to work together and find compromises, so stating that a particular area is “more American” than others not only insults those not from the selected area, but it invalidates all other possible perspectives from citizens as “not really American”. Besides, it isn’t even accurate to prescribe the same values on every single Kansan; just like the country at large, we’re a collection of individuals with various opinions and views.
The second assumption is that a person doesn’t change their thinking or values when they grow up. The storyline in Man of Steel established that Clark spent several years wandering the earth outside of Kansas, including working on a fishing boat. That means he would have encountered other ways of life and lines of thinking besides what was accepted as normal in his hometown. That doesn’t mean his convictions would have necessarily changed, but when you see that other people live and think differently than you it changes your perspective on the world. I’m definitely speaking from personal experience, having grown up in a town where “diversity” meant that we had Catholics and Protestants, and then spending years in the liberal cocoon of a university campus, but I think it’s probably a truth about growing up everywhere, that at some point you have to re-examine the assumptions you’ve made and decide whether you still believe them.
What do you think? Am I being over-sensitive about a line that was meant as a joke?
Let me know in the comments if you noticed any other Kansas shout-outs that I missed. There was one other instance that I was afraid was going to become one, but was thankful when it didn’t. It was when Superman was fighting Zod’s female henchman, and she went on a little rant about how Kryptonians were more evolved than humans, so they deserved to take over the planet because “if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.” The subtext is that teaching evolution in Kansas schools has been very controversial, but I was glad the movie didn’t actually make explicit reference to the fact that our state school board elections are national news by having Superman bounce up off the pavement and say something like “Well in Kansas, we’re not so sure about evolution!” I do wonder if there was an earlier version of the script where he did, though, because in the film he actually doesn’t respond verbally to her diatribe at all.
Anyway, I give the movie an A- for having so many great Kansas references, and the only reason it’s not an A+ is the tornado-sheltering-under-the-overpass scene. Maybe I’ll post my thoughts on the movie apart from the Kansas aspect later.
The movie Looper, written and directed by Rian Johson and staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, came out today. It’s fantastic! I really liked it, I will definitely go see it again and probably post about it again at least once, (maybe deciphering the ins-and-outs of the time travel), but–I do have a nit-picking criticism. I almost feel like I should apologize for insisting on pointing out this flaw, because I really truly loved the movie otherwise, but this is probably the only negative thing I will say about it, and it is a topic that I am passionate about–the accurate portrayal of my beloved home state in film.
*Very insignificant and mild spoilers ahead*
Text overlaying an opening scene tells us that Looper is meant to take place in “Kansas, 2042.” Wikipedia claims the city that the main character lives and works in is Kansas City, which I don’t remember hearing specifically mentioned in the film, but I would agree it’s a likely hypothesis. (It pretty much has to be Kansas City or Wichita). You may remember from this post that I am proud to have been born and raised in Kansas, and still enjoy living here to date. I’m always excited when people in Hollywood remember that my state exists, but I feel compelled to point out that what you saw in Looper was not an accurate representation of Kansas.
Kansas City, 30 years from now? It’s possible.
I’m referring primarily to the stuff growing in all the fields that border roads and that several characters escape into at different points. At first glance, I assumed it was corn. That’s not what Kansas is primarily known for, it’s not what I think of when I picture the local farms, (wheat! It’s endless fields of wheat!), but yeah, corn grows here. (We produce more wheat, grain sorghum, cattle, and sunflowers than corn, as you can see in this official 2011 Kansas Agriculture report.)
The fields featured as a prominent backdrop in Looper.
However, upon closer inspection, it turns out the fields are sugar cane. Emily Blunt’s character, Sarah, refers to “my cane fields” more than once, which is the main clue, but if you compare these screenshots I captured from the trailer with images of both corn and sugar cane, you can clearly see that they are the later.
Top: Sarah in front of her field in Looper, Middle: sugar cane field, Bottom: Corn field. Which does Sarah’s resemble?
It’s harder to tell in the close-ups, (top image is of young Joe in a field), but note the broader leaves on the corn (left) than sugar cane (right).
Notice how many of those stocks are leaning; according to LSU AgCenter, “Because of the heavy tonnage, the new variety [of sugar cane in Lousiana] has a tendency to fall down or lodge.”
So, it’s sugar cane. The reason that is problematic is sugar cane does not grow in Kansas. (See p. 21 of aforementioned recent Kansas Agriculture report. Sugar Cane needs a warm, frost-free climate, and Kansas temperatures swing between extremes, over 100˚F in summer and below 0˚F in winter). It is, however, grown in Louisiana, which makes sense considering that’s where most of the movie was filmed. What doesn’t make sense is filming a movie in one state, prominently featuring crops that could not survive the climate of a second state, but then labeling the setting as the second state. I know movies aren’t often filmed where they are actually supposed to take place, and I know those decisions are often based on what locations offer the best tax incentives, but I wonder how much of this kind of mistake is just laziness.
When Rian Johnson wrote this (excellent) script, why did he choose Kansas as the setting? Was there a significance to it, or was it just a random Midwestern state? The height of the crops (being tall enough that people could run and hide in them) seemed important since it was featured more than once–did Johnson realize that most of the crops in Kansas don’t match that description, or did he not actually research the area after he decided this story happened here? Was Kansas even considered when they were scouting production locations? Once they decided to film in Louisiana, with sugar cane fields, why not just change the setting? (I suppose the expectation of regional accents might complicate that a little).
Look, I’m thrilled that Johnson chose to set his story in Kansas, and I feel like I can claim it in some way, the way that some Hutchinson residents feel like they can claim a special connection to Superman. But it appears to me like there might have been other script changes made based on the location they ended up shooting, specifically the exchange between young Joe and Sarah, when he says she might as well burn her fields since they are dried up anyway, and she counters, “not gonna happen.” I wonder if those lines were in the original script in that way, or if they were added on site based on how the fields happened to look while they were filming. That leads me to another question, though–did the script originally call for Sarah to refer to her farmland as “cane fields”?
As I see it, there are a few possible explanations. Firstly, perhaps Rian Johnson originally wrote the script with another type of crop or a non-specific crop in the fields, and they changed it or specified to “cane fields” when they ended up shooting in Louisiana. Perhaps he just didn’t do any research on what Kansas is actually like, and based the imagery for his story on an amalgamation of rural America informed by geographically scattered references. Perhaps, perhaps, Johnson knew that sugar cane cannot grow in Kansas’ current climate, and the inclusion of it in this futuristic Kansas setting indicated that significant climate change was another thing to set the 2042 world apart from our present one, along with limited telekinesis, hovercraft technology, and of course time travel.
I did think Sarah’s automated crop duster was pretty cool. I assume it’s spraying pesticides, that makes more sense than fertilizer or irrigation in this case I think.
You might think it’s unreasonable for me to spend so much time and energy harping on a seemingly small detail like what kind of crops are in a fictitious movie. Believe me, I’m very aware that I’m nit-picking, but hear me out on two things–First, farming is some people’s entire life, many people that I know personally, and we all benefit from it. I can’t count how many times I’ve driven past the billboard that reminds, “One Kansas Farmer Feeds More Than 128 People + You!” I didn’t grow up on a farm and the incorrectness of the crops still jumped out at me on the first viewing. I just think making an effort to portray Kansas’ agricultural landscape accurately would be more respectful of the people who spend their lives putting food in your grocery stores and restaurants.
Second, I know it is a fictitious story, but if you’re going to set your story in a real place, why don’t you research that place and make it an accurate portrayal? The internet makes this ridiculously simple to do. Like, I didn’t know that much about growing sugar cane when I sat down to type this post, and now I know all the interesting things in this article, and how it was introduced to the South, and I’ll definitely be able to spot it right away without a google-image comparison next time I see it. That education took less than an hour. There’s really no excuse to make a major mistake like featuring a plant that doesn’t exist in your supposed setting!
Okay, having concluded my factual and reason-based rant, I have to reiterate once again how much I overall really, really loved Looper. I mean, I won’t be able to help noticing the out-of-place sugar canes every time I watch it, but they really aren’t very important to the story itself. The story could have taken place anywhere, as far as I’m concerned, which is part of the reason why I’m still so confused as to why they didn’t just change the setting to suit the footage better. What special connotations or meaning does setting a story in Kansas have to the general public? Or is it really that people who don’t live in the “fly-over states” can’t tell them apart? It’s *possible* that the inclusion of sugar cane was intentional, to hint at the climate change I theorized about earlier, but it requires assuming that everyone knows enough about agriculture to pick up on that. I have too deep a mistrust of movie accuracy, (based on too long a history of blunders, particularly when it comes to Kansas), to believe this was not a mistake without more definitive evidence.
You know, this is actually not the first film with a Kansas setting to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt! A few years back I netflixed The Lookout, and as I recall it’s also a really good flick. I didn’t take notes at the time, but my memory is that it looked, for the most part, very much like Kansas, (especially the highway scenes), but the dialogue made clunky over-reference to the fact that that was the setting. It’s not natural to refer to an everyday given, like the name of your state, so often and so obviously in conversation. I’ll have to re-watch it to get specific quotes.
Oh, and one more thing about Kansas and Looper–Joe’s safe combination is “6742.” Those are the first four digits of a handful of ZIP codes in Kansas, so was that an allusion to the fact that Joe’s character was originally from one of the small towns with a 6742- address? If so, that would be really cool, but it would also indicate that somebody did do some Kansas research, so then why the inaccuracy of the sugar canes? Unless the “climate change” theory is right, but if that were the case I think they would have mentioned it more explicitly.
Still a great movie!
**update** Saw the movie again last night and noticed several little futuristic things that were not explicitly mentioned, like solar panels on the roof of the farmhouse and on the hoods of several cars, and a tube connecting the exhaust pipe and gas tanks of cars like they had some way to re-use the fuel. So, it’s possible that the sugar canes growing in “Kansas” were supposed to be another unspoken piece of this futuristic setting, (although I’m still not sure whether people who don’t live around here would pick up on it, and I’m not wholly convinced, without some sort of indication to the contrary, that this isn’t just another example of Hollywood getting Kansas wrong). If it’s on purpose, that has to mean, as I said, extreme climate change. And another question would be, who’s growing the food? What are people eating? Or is a lack of food one of the reasons there’s so much cavalier violence and so many vagrants?
If the sugar canes are intentional, I think it might make a case for the unnamed “city” to be Wichita rather than Kansas City. It’s further south, so the climate would be a little warmer and less likely to frost, (deadly to sugar cane). Also, if we go with the theory that Joe’s safe combination is a partial zip code, the small towns that it could refer to (Beloit, Bennington, Beverly, Brookville, Bushton, or Canton) are all either west (or just barely east) of highway 135, which could be followed south straight to Wichita. The safe combination could be a reminder of some happy memory, of one of the places Joe and his mom stayed before she gave him up, or maybe the last place they were together. Fun fact–Canton, KS has two water towers humorously labeled “hot” and “cold”; that might be something a kid would remember! Wichita might also fit better with the story in the film, since it is more immediately surrounded by farmland whereas Kansas City is surrounded in suburbs. (But it could be they just never showed Joe driving through neighborhoods to get to his designated kill spot.)
I’m curious what other people think: is the sugar cane in Looper a mistake, or was it intentional?
Oh no he did not! I can’t believe he said that! Are you freaking kidding me? No. Way. What a snob. What?! WHAT?! I’m officially mad at you now, Johnny Depp.
“I look down my nose at you, rural America. Especially Kansas. Also, I don’t know which parts of Kansas are rural.”
Those were just some of my thoughts when I read the following excerpts from an article on Depp from the British magazine The Guardian. Emphasis added by me, douchiness added by Depp:
Early US box office returns suggest The Rum Diary may not break even – but he says he couldn’t care less about the money. “No, God no, no. It’s always a crap shoot, and really if you have that in your head while you’re making a movie the process would become something very different. No, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse really, not really.”
The publicity blitz in the past week might make cynics suggest otherwise. But the film is Depp’s homage to Thompson, who died in 2005, and also the first release by Depp’s own production company, which would account for his uncharacteristically energetic media campaign. “I believe that this film, regardless of what it makes in, you know, Wichita, Kansas, this week – which is probably about $13 – it doesn’t make any difference. I believe that this film will have a shelf life. I think it will stick around and people will watch it and enjoy it.” Does he suspect it will go down better in Europe than the US?
“Most definitely. It’s something that will be more appreciated over here, I think. Cos it’s – well, I think it’s an intelligent film.” He leaves a meaningful pause. “And a lot of times, outside the big cities in the States, they don’t want that.”
Yeah, we hicks is too stoopid tu ‘preciate nething ‘cept some nice big Michael Bay explosions! Speaking as someone who lives in Kansas, who grew up outside the big cities, and as someone who regularly analyzes every one of the numerous movies I watch, and, yes, enjoys intelligent films, I find Depp’s statements to be highly ignorant and offensive.
Let’s start with ignorant. First he picks out Wichita, Kansas as an example of a place where he expects his movie to do very poorly, so poorly he can make a sarcastic comment about it. Then, he explains why he doesn’t care by reasoning that outside of the big cities, people are too dumb to appreciate “intelligent” films. Dear Mr. Depp, were you aware that Wichita is the largest city in the state of Kansas? So, when you say “outside the big cities,” do you really pretty much mean not New York? Or do you know nothing of Midwestern geography and assume that the entire state of Kansas is full of Auntie Ems, Dorothys and Totos running around in black and white?
Secondly, what a simplistic and ridiculous theory to say that people in cities appreciate “intelligent” films and rural folk do not. Surely you can’t really believe that living in a metropolitan zip code actually makes one smarter? Don’t you think that maybe the reason films that don’t appeal to broad audiences fare better in more densely populated areas is because there are just more people? The ratio of people who like a particular film versus people who don’t can’t be that different from region to region, but if 5% of the people like it that might only be 200 people in a town of 4000, compared to 15,000 in a town of 300,000. That doesn’t mean people in the bigger town are smarter or more artistically appreciative. It just means the bigger town is bigger.
And you know what else, this is all in reference to his newest movie, The Rum Diary. I’ve seen said movie. Watched it in a theater in Kansas, and there was a decent crowd there. Several of them appeared to enjoy it. I personally did not. And not for one minute did I think of classifying it as an “intelligent” movie. It just wasn’t very good. The reporter of this Guardian article agrees with me, too.
The film is based on an unpublished novel Depp found in Thompson’s basement in the 90s. Heavily autobiographical, it tells the story of a hard-drinking young reporter called Paul Kemp who goes to work for a paper in Puerto Rico in 1960, and becomes outraged by the corruption and devastation wreaked by American capitalism’s arrival on the island. It turns into a tale of heroic journalistic integrity – but not, in truth, a good film.
Almost the entire article is annoying to me, the way the reporter keeps gushing over Depp while the actor keeps making statements that make him sound like another out-of-touch, whiny-about-the-price-of-fame celebrity. Which is why this line may have made me laugh the hardest:
Depp comes across as thoughtful, friendly and good fun.
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Sorry Mr. Depp, but to the people in Kansas, you come across as thoughtless, mean and ill-tempered. But what do we know. Most of us live outside the big cities.