Director’s Cut: Manlife

This week on Director’s Cut, it’s my pleasure to welcome Ryan Sarnowski, discussing his documentary Manlife.

MANLIFE – TRAILER from Threshing Media on Vimeo.

At age 90, Merle Hayden has a lot to do. A devout follower of Lawsonomy (a utopian movement begun by Alfred Lawson, inventor of the first passenger airliner), Merle feels Lawson provided the answers to many of America’s economic and social problems. So why was Lawson written out of the history books? And why isn’t anyone listening?

Using a wealth of archival photos, films, and audio tapes collected by Merle, MANLIFE tells the story of Alfred Lawson’s attempts to make history and Merle’s unrelentingly quest to save humanity before he runs out of time.

Read on for more about this film, and about my interview with filmmaker Ryan Sarnowski.

Merle Hayden stands in front of the University of Lawsonomy sign off of I-94 in a vintage photoFor decades, many travelers driving between Milwaukee and Chicago saw a huge sign off I-94 that read University of Lawsonomy.  Few had any idea what the University of Lawsonomy actually was. No one I have ever talked to knew of anyone who attended this school, and they never seem to make the NCAA Tournament!

What I’m trying to say, film enthusiasts, is that if you’ve applied to the U. of Lawsonomy film school… don’t hold your breath.

Alfred Lawson poses with a model of his first airliner at the Wisconsin Centennial in 1948.

Lawsonomy is – or was – a utopian movement founded by Alfred Lawson. A true American original, Lawson had a brief career as a professional baseball player, invented the United States’ first passenger airliner and created the Direct Credits Society after his business went bankrupt during the Great Depression. The motivation behind Direct Credits (I’m still not sure exactly how it works) was economic reform against the 1%. Sound familiar

As interesting a character as Lawson himself is, Racine native Merle Hayden is even more fascinating.

Merle, in costume, delivering a recitation from one of Lawson’s earliest publications – The Devil.

When the Depression ended, many of Lawson’s thousands of followers gave up the practice as the economy rebounded. But  Hayden, our leading man, doubled down on Lawsonomy and decided to preach Lawson’s principles until his death just a couple of years ago.

At one point during our interview, Sarnowski laughed as he recalled Hayden being slightly put off that his girlfriend Betty Kasch was so prominently featured in the film. Betty, Hayden argued, wasn’t a “true believer,” and took some of the focus off Lawsonomy.

After my second viewing of this film (I saw it first at the Driftless Film Festival last fall) I realized that Betty – to me – is the true “access character” for the audience, providing an insightful point of view on Merle and his dedication.

Merle and Betty relax outside their trailer at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh.

Betty is also interesting in her own right: she seems to truly love and respect Merle, even though she doesn’t quite understand his devotion to Lawson’s teachings. She definitely provides laughs throughout the film.

Sarnowski is a seasoned filmmaker who has produced over 100 documentary shorts. His work isn’t unfamiliar to WPT viewers; he is the editor for Wisconsin Foodie. His production company, Threshing Media, tells stories of uncommon lives and overlooked subjects – an area that Manlife explores deftly.

Manlife is a really solid and fascinating film, well-paced and well told. After interviewing Sarnowski and seeing his film – twice! – I am anxiously awaiting his next effort.

Please join me this Friday, June 15 for my interview with Ryan Sarnowski on Director’s Cut at 10:30 p.m. And stick around after our interview, when Director’s Cut will air the full-length film Manlife.

As always, thanks for joining us on Wisconsin Public Television: your home for independent film!

Host Pete Schwaba discusses the documentary Manlife with director Ryan Sarnowski

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