2010 // USA // Errol Morris // August 7, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Tivoli Theater)
One of the more striking aspects of Errol Morris’ delightfully nutty new documentary, Tabloid, is how closely the film’s thematic concerns track with those of the director’s previous effort, the absorbing and incisive Standard Operating Procedure. The latter film affirmed that what went on behind closed doors at the Abu Ghraib prison was, if anything, stranger than what one might conclude from those notorious photographs of naked prisoners and grinning MPs. However, even at its most bizarre, the Abu Ghraib scandal doesn’t hold a candle to the story of Tabloid, a globetrotting farce that encompasses a beauty queen, Mormon missionaries, unrequited love, kidnapping, a sheepdog, BDSM sex, a vicious British tabloid war, and a South Korean cloning laboratory. Still, the most prominent commonality between the two films isn’t the stranger-than-fiction quality of the events they depict, but how Morris employs those events to explore the slippery nature of truth, and to illustrate how maddening it can be to resolve limited and often contradictory evidence into a coherent narrative. Such matters, of course, have been a perennial fascination of Morris’ since the The Thin Blue Line. (Which, incidentally, has the moral distinction of being a work of cinema that arguably saved a person’s life.)
Tabloid’s concerns, however, are far less grave than a wrongful murder conviction or a shadow program of prisoner torture. In truth, I’m reluctant to summarize Tabloid's story in greater detail, as one of the central pleasures of the film is the sensation of pure astonishment as Morris reveals each new demented twist. The tale will be familiar to British filmgoers who recall when the Daily Mirror recounted every jot for weeks on end in 1977-1978. However, for the rest of Tabloid’s viewers, the story will be a tawdry roller coaster of peculiar details and flabbergasting revelations. Suffice to say that at the eye of the film’s hurricane sits Joyce McKinney, a figure who is equal parts spellbinding, baffling, and utterly unbearable. Tabloid is, in essence, her story, told in her own words and supplemented (and refuted) with the words of associates, experts, and journalists. One can easily discern what attracted Morris to McKinney as a documentary subject: She combines magnetic charisma, giggly eccentricities, relentless self-absorption, and a disconcerting lack of remorse. Frankly, she seems barking mad, and yet adept at cloaking herself in romantic idealism and folksy turns of phrase. Ultimately, the film can’t help but convey a glimmer of sympathy for McKinney in light of the press’ remorseless (and disproportionate) trampling of her life, even when her tears are very likely of the crocodile variety.
Morris’ method is well-established at this point, although Tabloid presents some slight variations on that method. The bulk of the film consists of talking-head interviews filmed with the director’s signature “Interrotron," which allows the subject to look directly into the camera in a naturalistic, conversational manner. The director intersperses this interview footage with archival materials, brisk special effects, pithy sound cues, and ironic bits of stock footage. Unlike some of Morris’ features, Tabloid abstains from stylized recreations. Instead, the film utilizes droll animated sequences based on the graphical style of the British tabloids, and even employs actual clippings as animation elements. This suits Tabloid’s tone of bewildered amusement, and lends it the kind of distinctive formal flourish that documentaries about sensational crimes rarely boast. As in The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’ presence is limited to the odd, off-screen question, usually delivered in an incredulous tone. This neatly encapsulates the first-order appeal of Tabloid—the allure of that which seems beyond belief—and also the particular brilliance of the filmmaker's approach. Morris' estimable ability to coax profound themes from oddball portraits and scathing exposés alike would not be half as effective, were he not so self-evidently intrigued on a personal level by the stories he tells.