‘Tabloid’ From Errol Morris Teases, Tantalizes, Entertains

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CHICAGO – Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” is the sort of documentary so probing and inquisitive that it can’t help questioning its own validity. It’s a story about storytelling, a documentary that deconstructs the artifice of documentary filmmaking and a nonfiction narrative that may very well be comprised entirely of fiction. Such boundless ambition and self-reflexive irony is only typical of Morris, who is surely one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium.
Though his last film, 2008’s shattering “Standard Operating Procedure,” drew instant comparisons to Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” the films’ similarities didn’t extend far beyond their basic subject matter. Morris’s films are closer in style and spirit to the work of Frederick Wiseman and Werner Herzog—auteurs with a knack for illuminating the absurdity and futility of existence. It’s been a long while since Morris picked a subject that allowed him to explore his playful side, and “Tabloid” provides him with a golden opportunity.
Like so many of the documentarian’s greatest triumphs, “Tabloid” unearths a tale forgotten by many and re-opens it for fresh speculation. A sordid story popularized by British tabloids may seem like an odd source for inspiration, but it’s worth remembering that Morris’s debut effort, “Gates of Heaven,” was born out of a tale the filmmaker originally discovered in a gossip rag. It’s clear that Morris’s intention is not to exploit the material but to get beneath the layers of smoke and mirrors. ‘What’s really going on?’ is a question not always easy to determine. Who can say whether former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney stalked her alleged boyfriend Kirk Anderson to a Mormon meetinghouse in Ewell, Surrey (circa 1977), kidnapped him at gunpoint, chained him to a bed and had her way with him? Who can determine whether the young missionary was complicit in the supposed abduction? Was he really raped, or did he just claim to be out of theological guilt? A dishonest documentary would be one that pretends to have all the answers. Good thing Morris’s questions are more tantalizing and provocative than any number of debatable truths.

Joyce McKinney’s controversial past is the subject of Errol Morris’s new documentary, Tabloid.
Joyce McKinney’s controversial past is the subject of Errol Morris’s new documentary, Tabloid.
Photo credit: IFC Films

To watch a Morris film is to absorb a master class in the art of the interview. His signature style consists of a talking head interrupted by sudden cuts to black, marking the end of takes so as not to manipulate the viewer with misleading sound bites. Occasionally, the camera will linger on the changing expression of a subject as ambiguous nuances start to flicker along its composed surface. The director also allows his voice to freely appear on the soundtrack, delivering questions with an impulsive, almost incredulous curiosity. The mere presence of Morris’s voice makes him as much of a subject as the person placed in front of his lens. His films don’t invite audiences to shut their minds off and be swayed by his biased views—they encourage audiences to find their own answers. In “Tabloid,” Morris acknowledges that he is, in essence, a storyteller just like McKinney and the tabloid writers who set out to make her a celebrity. Once the audience gets a load of McKinney, it’s easy to see why Morris and an untold number of British journalists were drawn to her in the first place.
After living the last few decades in obscurity, McKinney resurfaced in 2008 under the thin guise of “Bernann” when she paid a fortune to have her beloved dog cloned in Korea. Once again, the hysterical headlines returned to unearth rumors from the past, and Morris’s fascination was ignited. The interview he acquired from her is stunningly candid, exuberantly funny and deeply tragic, sometimes all at once. Though it’s unclear how factual McKinney’s claims may be, it’s the authenticity of her conviction that makes her such a magnetic screen presence. It’s that same charisma McKinney utilized to win over the press upon her initial arrest. Yet she immediately regretted the attention once the “Daily Mirror” attempted to trash her already unhinged reputation with an onslaught of scandalous photos, many of which appear to paste her head on the bodies of nude models (the negatives that would debunk this claim are conveniently missing). This type of journalistic corruption is hardly a shocker, though it is a strikingly poignant subject to explore in light of the recent astonishing allegations against Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Morris couldn’t have prayed for better timing.

Tabloid opens July 15 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Tabloid opens July 15 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Photo credit: IFC Films

What makes “Tabloid” such an entertaining ride is the sheer number of versions a single story can have in the conflicting eyes of observers. The collaboration Morris forges with editor Grant Surmi is marvelously inventive. When a subject drops a lurid word into their dialogue, Morris plasters it over the screen, drawing attention to its buzzworthy power. When the subject’s name first appears on the screen, Morris precedes it with flashes of various other titles the subject has earned from the press. The director’s reliance on found footage proves to be more fitting than ever, since each cutaway clip offers yet another perspective on the material. When the subjects describe Anderson’s religious rituals, Morris cuts to an educational video on Mormonism. Perhaps the most haunting moments of all come courtesy from footage shot by Trent Harris of McKinney reading from her memoir, “A Very Special Love Story,” as if it were a faerie tale. It’s in this grainy film clip where McKinney’s soul seems to be laid bare: she’s a lovesick dreamer living in an illusion that has run through her mind so repeatedly that it has irrevocably blurred the line separating truth from distortion. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion.

‘Tabloid’ features Joyce McKinney, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Troy Williams and Kent Gavin. It was directed by Errol Morris. It opens July 15 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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