Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sex, Mormons, Boogers, Kidnapping, and a Miss World Contestant - "Tabloid" Review

There could be no better time, or atmosphere, for the release of Errol Morris's newest documentary, Tabloid, than today.  While the world is focused on the potentially criminal and atrocious misdeeds of Rupert Murdoch, a tabloid king and former owner of News of the World, it seems wholly appropriate that the famed documentarian, Morris, also focuses his attention once again to the very elusive idea of truth.

However, to characterize Morris's Tabloid, as a scrutinizing look at tabloid culture wouldn't be correct.  Morris's opinion of the people and events that transpire during Tabloid is rather obvious, but it doesn't seem so important.  What is important is that the story he is telling is one that operates outside the realms of believability.  And yet... it's all true.  Well at least some version of it is.

Errol Morris's filmography has spanned a broad realm of topics and has won him an Academy Award for 2003's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.  Morris's documentaries are always uniquely his own, easily able to differentiate themselves from the most modern, pop-culture infused works of documentarians like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore.  What differentiates Morris's work is his incredible ability to capture raw personalities in his interview segments that make up most of his films.  Instead of relying on zany graphics and quick edits, both of which are numerous in Tabloid, Morris is able to reveal every ounce of humanity from his casts as is possible.

In stark opposition to Morris's relentless pursuit of the truth in The Thin Blue Line, Morris seems to embrace the very nature of misrepresentation and of mystery in Tabloid.  Instead, he is focused on how subjective truth is and how in the hands of a particular personality it can be manipulated into an incredible story.

What is that incredible story?

In the words of two rival British tabloids, it is the story of the "case of the manacled Mormon," as told by the main contributor to the story, former beauty queen and Miss World contestant, Joyce McKinney.  McKinney tells the story of her fairy-tale love for a Mormon missionary, Kirk Anderson, who disappeared after several months of their dating.  After hiring a private detective, Kirk is found to be on mission in England and Joyce feels like it is up to her to save their love.  So she plans an elaborate kidnapping to free Kirk of his "brainwashing" Church.  Once the kidnapping is complete, Joyce whisks Kirk away to a dreamy country cottage for the weekend for some intense lovemaking.

What really happened at the cottage is the stuff of great mystery.  When Kirk returned from his weekend with Joyce, he claimed he was raped by Joyce.  Joyce on the other hand tells a very different tale, one wherein the Church officials threaten to ostracize Kirk if he doesn't claim allegations of rape.

What followed was tabloid legend.  Joyce McKinney was an overnight sensation, grabbing the top spotlight of two of the biggest British tabloids.  What is most interesting is that each paper has a completely different take on the story of Joyce.  One presents her as an innocent, nubile woman; the other as a sex-crazed whore.  It isn't the disparity of the stories that makes it so unique, as this is fairly common amongst news outlets, but that each paper's take is directly dependent on how close their personal relationship with Joyce is.

Morris tells his story mostly through candid and "honest" interviews with all of the key members involved in the story, minus Kirk.  We see the story from all different sides, no stone unturned.  From a horny airplane pilot to a tabloid photographer, each and every person looks straight into the camera with complete sincerity and tells their story.  No single person's story lines up with any of the others' stories.  Someone has to be lying, but how can you tell when absolutely everyone seems so honest?

Morris punctuates these interviews with Mormon cartoons and news clips, presented inside of television screens and on projection screens.  The filmmaking feels exactly like a tabloid paper, even including bold words that pop up on the screen to highlight and draw out drama from the interviewee's words.   It is this kind of bold stylistic choice that keeps the film light and fun, rather than Morris's typical emotional and philosophical pieces.

At one point, the story takes a huge turn from out of left field, that even the characters admit seems as if it was concocted by one of the world's worst fiction writers.  I audibly gasped, "WHAT?" in the theater amidst a number of chuckling theater-goers.

To quote John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  This is exactly what Morris does.  Only one person knows what actually happened and he is absent from the film, refusing to be interviewed.  Morris couldn't have lucked out more than not being able to interview Kirk.  Without his testimony, the film is all the more interesting.  It never presents itself as an answer to the mystery; which is far less interesting than the story.  Sure this might be reinforcing the nature of tabloid journalism, but damn if it isn't incredibly entertaining.

3 / 4 Reels


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