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SXSW Movie Review: ‘Tabloid’

March 16, 2011

Of the three films I’ve been most excited to see at SXSW, two of them were documentaries, and the two documentaries that pretty much everyone else has been the most excited to see: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Errol Morris’s Tabloid. Of the two, the one I was a little unsure of was Morris’s. I know Morris to be somewhat of an acquired taste, and I find his films to lag some, but his is a master of interview and editing: No line of dialogue, no word, uttered by a subject in a Morris documentary, is uninteresting.

And Tabloid is no exception—in fact, it may well be the best introduction to Morris and is certainly his funniest.

The story was new to me: Joyce McKinney is a former beauty queen who fell in love with a man who took up with the Mormon faith and left her to perform his required mission trip in London. Joyce tracked him down, supposedly kidnapped him, and further supposedly spirited him away to a cottage in Devon where she (even further) supposedly chained him to a bed and had her way with him. That’s not the whole story, of course, and one of the best jokes of Tabloid is just how far the story of Joyce McKinney, the tabloid Joyce McKinney keeps going, and going, and going, and shows no intent of slowing down, right up to the now.

Of course I use Joyce McKinney’s name as if I refer to the real person, which I don’t, nor do I think Morris feels he’s presenting a picture of the real Joyce McKinney. But that’s not his aim, rather it’s the presentation that matters. As you watch each interviewee, you pick apart the flaws in their stories and recognize their own personal interests and stakes in it. It’s fantastic, to be sure, and the more you try to break it down into the straight facts, the further you find yourself from them.

This is an amazing film, and one I think will polarize many people. There’s going to be plenty (such as my theatre, and myself) who are going to find it as funny as any comedy—much less documentary—they’ve seen, and there are others who are going to attack Morris for what they perceive as cheap-shots toward McKinney, such as editing clips in such as a way as to suggest an alternate and unfavorable context or the use of large lines of text placed over the speaker to mock whatever they’re saying (“It was like a beautiful honeymoon,” Joyce says as “KIDNAPPED” appears in big bolds across the screen). Neither side is wrong, and while even I think some gags are in poor taste, I hope the latter group can understand my point of the film as trying to capture a collective perception rather than being a mere hatchet job.

If it were, Morris would go much further out of his way to directly contradict Joyce. Instead, he offers multiple points of view, Joyce included, and the only conclusion that I think it’s fair to come to is that the actual truth is shades of all its players’ lines. Joyce certainly has her foibles, and certainly many who would attack the film could point to the showcasing of those foibles as an example of Morris’ exploitation, but then how many will point to the characterization of the airplane pilot as a dirty old man? Or the Mirror and Examiner interviewees as willful manipulators of the truth (whatever it is)?

But it is funny, enlightening, touching, and delightful. Is he mocking? Or is he expressing what everyone else is thinking (Morris himself sounds astonished at times, and I think he’s speaking for all of us)? I think instead he’s capturing the spirit of Tabloids from the use of several perspectives on what is, at least everyone can agree, an extraordinary story.


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