R.I.P. Marc McKerrow
Prodigal Sons was a watershed experience for me at last year's Nashville Film Festival and has moved audiences and impressed critics in Canada, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, and so many other places, as well as the U.S. Long before I spent a weekend hosting Kim at Northwestern, I was already bewildered by the smattering of reviews that worried whether Prodigal Sons is over-crowded with subject matter, or whether it's ultimately exploitative in depicting Marc's struggles with mental illness, his consequent swings of temper, his longing for his birth parents whom he was never to meet, and his acute case of sibling rivalry. From where I was sitting, the beautifully judged density of the narrative is one of the movie's cardinal virtues, since too many films, fiction and nonfiction, seem so cowed into dulling the edges of difficult stories, or taking infinite snapshots of one side of a character while never taking the initiative to walk around for different angles, or to think, hard, about to whom and to what that character relates. And the danger of exploitation strikes me as precisely what Prodigal Sons avoids through such a rounded, principled, but compassionate vantage on Marca vantage, moreover, that puts the filmmaker up for review as fully as it does her struggling brother.
When Kim visited Northwestern last winter, she said that no one was a bigger fan of Prodigal Sons than Marc. For anyone to whom this reads like a typical sound-bite of promotional cant, I watched her fulfilling Marc's standing request that she call him before or after and sometimes during every single festival screening of Prodigal Sons she attendedand she attended a lot. Marc's former wife, whom you meet in the film, attended a recent screening at the Spokane International Film Festival, near the home she shared with Marc: as apt a tribute as I can imagine to the fullness and fairness of the characterization, short of her own continued, private support of Marc through his ordeals. If you have seen the film, which has begun airing on the Sundance Channel and will appear on DVD this month, or if you saw Kim's hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey in February, you know that behind this meditative, deft, free-thinking, and full-hearted movie is a family of unusual resilience and attachment, even or especially in the face of unusual tests.
Motivating all of these words is the news that Marc passed away unexpectedly on Friday. Only three days later, Prodigal Sons screened for the first time on Sundance, thereby reaching what is certain to be its largest, least predictable audience. The film is suddenly his legacy in a poignantly literal way, which I expect will only make it a more wrenching but also a more stirring and memorable viewing experience. Tributes to Marc and condolences to the family have already begun proliferating on the film's Facebook page; a new foundation in his name, to raise awareness and funding related to brain injury and mental illness, will soon go online here and here. I encourage you to donate what you can, even if it's just a few moments of your time to read and learn, or a private thought for the McKerrows and for other people who negotiate these sorts of challenges.
I have found it difficult to pay tribute to Marc without sounding like I'm shilling for the movie. I don't know how to avoid that danger when I not only feel so strongly about Prodigal Sons, but after all, it's the aperture through which my life came to be changed by my exposure to Marc and to his whole family's story. From any proximity, intimate or distant, blood-tied or wholly anonymous, he comes across as not an easy person to get next to. At the same time, Prodigal Sons makes clear that Marc had an ability to be very open and kind, very big of heart, and that he believed in family in ways not everyone allows themselves to do anymore. In conversation, Kim amplified what is already evident in the movie: Prodigal Sons was her way of reaching out to a sibling who had always posed problems for her. Well before the seeds of the film were even planted, Marc had surprised Kim with a request that she help him write his autobiography. In many ways the film was his pet and his idea, despite a few viewers' misapprehensions that he is somehow secondary or precariously positioned with respect to Kim's own narrative. Though Marc's life only got tougher from where the movie leaves off, brother and sister only became more and more bonded.
Now, in the wake of his death, I am only more moved to see Prodigal Sons as a beautiful, sobering testimonyprovoking of thought as well as feelingthat there are so many ways to reach out and mend fences where they are broken, or even to reiterate your love for people who are well aware of it. During what is surely a terrible time for the McKerrow family, I hope they find some solace in the fact that they collectivelyMarc includedreached out to each other before it could easily have been too late. Clearly the story is more complicated than that, and it's important to recognize, even having spent time with Kim, that I have only an extremely mediated awareness of who the McKerrows are and what all they have been through together. But I'm keeping them even closer in my thoughts than I already have in the year and a half since I first saw Prodigal Sons, and I hope some of you might do the same.
Four days after Marc passed, and the morning after the movie's premiere to a nationwide audience on cable TV, this rare double rainbow appeared in the sky over the McKerrows' hometown of Helena, Montana. Interpret as you will. Poetic license can be a great ally in moments of introspection.