It’s clear ESPN gives directors complete control over their 30 for 30 documentaries because there are so many ways that each story can be presented. Co-directors Josh Swade and Maura Mandt's There's No Place Like Home was presented as what I like to call a “popcorn doc.” And that's fine by me.
As far as I can tell, “popcorn doc” has not yet entered the movie lexicon, but the premise is simple: document a story that has an ending everyone expects to happen, but add in a few last-minute obstacles that seemingly cannot be overcome, create a few humorous moments*, and give us a few engaging characters and you’ve got yourself a popcorn doc.
*See: Louise Allen's reaction when hearing that a group of Duke alumni might purchase the rules. Her unflinching disdain for Duke is high comedy.
Like with popcorn flicks, I knew I was meant to turn my brain off for this doc. I wasn’t going to learn anything drastically new and I wasn’t going to be blown away by some amazing historical revelation. My job was to sit back, watch, and try to live vicariously through KU superfan (and doppleganger of wrestler CM Punk) Swade. Just like you watch The Expendables knowing you're there to watch action stars kill bad guys, you watch this doc to see a superfan try to do something for a program that has already done so much for him.
I get a little queasy, though, when I see directors film a doc that they’re featured in. You always get the feeling that they’re hamming it up for the camera so that the story will be better, more dramatic, but often it just comes off as uncomfortably cheesy. The scene where Swade hovers over James Naismith’s grave with a basketball nearby was aggravating and didn’t feel authentic. However, every interview Swade conducted was as real as you can get.
He sells me on his authenticity in his first interview. “Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark?,” he asks an alumnus, as if he’s Chris Farley grilling Paul McCartney on the Beatles. “If we have those commandments, I’m not gonna say we’ll never lose, but think about every article that’s written. ‘Oh, that’s where the original rules sit.’” He becomes endearing with his anxious approach, his nervous demeanor, and his desperate plea. He acts like any one of us would act if placed in the same position.
Like any popcorn flick, a large majority of the doc is filler. But it all leads up to the big climax: the auction, which itself is quite ridiculous. The fact that an Abraham Lincoln signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and General Custard’s flag were the other two items up for auction that day is laughable. The ridiculousness of it is only strengthened by the appearance of a Globetrotter. This could only happen in a popcorn doc.
I hope most people watched the auction scene without any knowledge of the final outcome. If you went into this doc not knowing how the story ends, the auction is nerve racking. I was 95% sure that David Booth would purchase the rules, but that 5% kept me on the edge of my seat.** I watched the scene a second time and I was just as nervous and upset at the pace of bidding. “What are these people doing? Figuring out the square root of something or the other?” asks Booth. “Tell them to speed it up.” Amen, Booth.
**Had I known that Booth pledged $300 million to the University of Chicago in 2008, I probably would have moved up my confidence to 99%. Afterall, what’s $4 million compared to that, right?
The film ends in a bit of a whimper since we don’t get to see the rules on display at KU.*** This is what sets a popcorn doc apart from a popcorn flick. If this were a popcorn flick, the last scene would have had a close up on the rules displayed at the new addition to Allen Fieldhouse. And had the evil Duke alumus won the auction, I’m sure we would have seen the rules be taken care of by “top men.”
***Not until 2014, at least.
Still, the hero Swade still gets to win the day and make the announcement to all of the Jayhawk faithful that the rules were coming home. As Roy Williams put it, having the rules in Lawrence, Kansas, “Would be a dream world, which is okay. It’s nice to have those things happen.”
Well it happened, coach. And it was nice.
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