Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tabloid: You'd Hardly Beleive It, Cause She Doesn't Either

Written and Directed By: Errol Morris
Featuring: Joyce McKinney
Director of Photography: Robert Chappell, Editor: Grant Surmi, Original Music: John Kusiak
Rated: R for many nasty things you’ll be dying to hear about.

            It comes as no surprise early in the latest Errol Morris film Tabloid that its main subject, Joyce McKinney, used to be a beauty pageant. While now in her 50s and lacking some of the beauty of her youth, Ms. McKinney still has the spirit, charisma, and energy that defined her younger era. And just by watching her, you get the sense that Ms. McKinney cannot do anything but perform (as she did recently at a screening of the film where she rallied against it). She loves her stories, telling it her way, and wrapping you up in what she sees as a love story, and Mr. Morris sees as darkly comic horror.

            And thus we have Tabloid, a wildly outrageous and highly comical flick from the master documentarian. Mr. Morris’ last two films took on bold and dark subjects; The Fog of War put former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara front and center to defend his actions in Vietnam, and Standard Operating Procedure challenged the way we perceive the atrocities of war, particularly the photos from Abu Ghraib. The calm severity that dominated the tone of those previous features has dissipated from Mr. Morris’ palette, as he sweeps into the black hole that is the highly absurd story of Joyce McKinney—one that may lack the psychological or political depth of his best work, but is his most frothy and entertaining docs yet.

            The film is essentially a he-said-she-said look at one particular tabloid case from the late 1970s (as we learned from this week's news, tabloid run the town on the shores of our English brothers). We begin with Ms. McKinney telling us her storybook love of her and Kirk Anderson, a Mormon living in Utah. But when Kirk disappeared, Joyce searched across the world, eventually rescuing him from a missionary in the United Kingdom. But wait a minute, the film asks, as others enter the story. Was it a rescue or a kidnap? Was their three days in a cottage in the South of England a passionate romantic getaway, or was Mr. Anderson chained up? And is Joyce just an innocent and na├»ve American, or is there a deep dark past?

            Mr. Morris loves these types of questions, particularly because they are framed between Ms. McKinney and the incredulous and loathsome tabloid writers that covered her story. He brings in the others involved with the “rescue” mission, the journalists who dug deeper than ever to find (or create) the story, and a Mormon expert who acts like he just walked off the hit Broadway musical (Mr. Anderson refused to appear). None of these characters add up to anything, except that the truth is impossible to reach. Stylistically, he adds to his usual antics as well, flashing big words on the screen and cutting whenever he can sensationalize the story ever further than it already is. This gives Tabloid the feel of a real tabloid magazine in cinematic form, and the fun of it all derives from the film’s “oh my goodness and there’s more?” tone it seems to take, irreverence and all.

            However, what Tabloid lacks is a moral truth that has often led Mr. Morris’ work (both his films and his fantastic essays for the New York Times) from simply pleasing to thought provoking. Perhaps due to the shallowness of his subjects, Tabloid remains at arms length toward making any grand gestures or genuine insight to the situation, as pleasing as the film is. The film’s final act, which skips decades ahead to an even more bizzare incident with Ms. McKinney, displays callowness toward resolution that usually penetrates the works of Mr. Morris, and instead seems to give up on any final reconciliation.

            But perhaps it’s because Ms. McKinney has never given up her truth. She tells us late in the film that only God and she know the real truth. And as Mr. Morris and Ms. McKinney seem to be fighting it out across screening rooms, part of the genuine inventiveness of Tabloid is that we are more unsure of the case when we walk out than when we walk in. For these people, the show and the stunt is the truth.

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