Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

McKinney versus McGonagall

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On Saturday, my wife and I went to see Tabloid, Errol Morris’s hugely entertaining new documentary about the strange life of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, dog cloner, and kidnapper of the manacled Mormon. We went to see it at Landmark Century, one of Chicago’s leading art house theaters, and because certain shows can get pretty crowded on the weekends, I made sure that we got there forty minutes early. Once we arrived, though, I was surprised to find that the theater itself was almost dead, and we were the first ones to be seated for Tabloid. And while the other seats gradually filled, the auditorium was never more than halfway full. It was almost, I mused to myself, as if everyone else in the world was off seeing some other movie.

That movie, of course, was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which we ended up seeing the following day. The contrast couldn’t have been greater: although we saw Harry Potter at an early matinee on Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed, mostly with adults, all doing their part to contribute to the most lucrative opening weekend of all time. It’s tempting, then, to see these two films as extreme ends of the moviegoing spectrum. Tabloid is a modest production even by Morris’s standards—he doesn’t do any of his usual reenactments or even any shooting on location, with the entire film consisting of talking heads, graphics, and archival footage—while Deathly Hallows is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Taken together, its two parts cost something like $250 million, meaning that Morris’s entire filmography could probably be financed by the first five minutes alone.

Beyond their scale and subject matter, the films also differ radically in their conceptions of storytelling. Tabloid is structured around an unfolding sequence of surprises: it’s best to go in without knowing anything about McKinney’s peculiar story, but even if you’ve studied it closely, you’re almost certainly going to be startled by some of the revelations in store. Deathly Hallows, by contrast, is built on a complete absence of surprise: for the most part, viewers are hoping to see the literal realization of events that they’ve been anticipating in detail for years, and in many cases have all but memorized before entering the theater. Deathly Hallows isn’t out to surprise us, but to satisfy us with the exemplary execution of a foreordained plot—which is something that it does very well.

But while I have to admit that I liked Tabloid just a bit better than Deathly Hallows, there’s room in this world for both kinds of stories. They also have more in common than you might think, at least when it comes to fulfilling our expectations. It’s absurd to expect a $250 million movie based on the most popular fantasy series of all time to surprise us in more than superficial ways. (This is the same reason why a Pixar film, as I’ve said before, generally can’t be as beguiling or strange as a Miyazaki movie.) And there’s also something predictable about Morris’s very unpredictability. As much as a Harry Potter fan goes into Deathly Hallows expecting something very specific, I go into a Morris movie expecting eccentricity, odd twists, and weird lights on human behavior. His brand, in some ways, is as consistent as Potter’s. Both are necessary; both are oddly comforting. And there’s room in everyone’s life for both.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

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