Dir: Errol Morris, 2010. Documentaries.
For over thirty years director Errol Morris has been redefining the visionary guidelines of what a documentary is and can be. He brought a deeper understanding of visual and sound construction techniques that pushed the documentary into a more compelling medium than the films that preceded his work. In the ‘80s, his film The Thin Blue Line helped get a guy off death row, but maybe more importantly, it brought the documentary genre into the mainstream and helped expose a lot of audience members and future filmmakers to the new possibilities that documentaries can achieve both socially and technically. Where many of the acclaimed filmmakers of his generation have lost their golden touch, every few years he keeps turning out a new film and he may of peaked with his last one, Tabloid, an insanely epic story of love and loss and the seedy nature of our voyeuristic society. 

Morris, at his best, finds grand stories of people who live on the fringe of our culture with twisted obsessions, whether pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), holocaust denying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) or mole rats and trapezes (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Morris has a canny ability to park his camera inside the brains of these kooks and come to understand or appreciate their causes. His best films have been his eccentric bios, also usually about a sort of obsession that eats at his subjects like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) and Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Tabloid is almost an accumulation of his life’s work, combining all of what he does best and turning the dial up. It’s a bio of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who sits on camera and tells her crazy and kinky story, aided by other talking heads and archive footage and a lot of press clippings. Without moralizing or taking sides, this is Morris’s most creatively laid-out spectacle, yet the quirkiness and perversion never outweigh the filmmaking. 

In the 1970s the passionate McKinney, who claims to have an IQ of168 and seems to live in a fairy-tale world in her head, fell for Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon. When his conservative family got wind of the romance they quickly packed him off for missionary work in England, leaving her baffled. Somehow the undeterred McKinney ended up in Los Angeles where she learned of his whereabouts from a private detective she hired. With the help of a male friend named Keith, she put together and financed a motley crew, including a pilot and muscle-bound bodyguards, to travel overseas and rescue her Mormon Romeo.

Most of the guys get cold feet before the scheme goes into full motion, but eventually she does find Anderson and whisk him away to a romantic cabin in the woods (where they spend a few days having sex and eating his favorite foods). That was her interpretation of the events, but when he got back to his Mormon leaders he claimed he was kidnapped at gunpoint, chained to a bed, and raped by McKinney. She is arrested for the crimes and so begins a British tabloid frenzy that makes McKinney the page one story of the moment and turns her into a quasi celebrity—a reality star, without the reality. In disguise she sneaks out of England and skips her trial, making her self-created drama even more sensational.

In a Rashomon type of twist, no two stories quite match. Dug up by tabloid reporters, McKinney’s past (before her British adventure) is much racier then the Snow White image she gives herself. With lurid pictures, reporters have proof she was a call girl-slash-nudie model, erupting into a whole new tabloid storm. McKinney’s tale doesn’t stop there and twenty years later she reemerges in the press. As an eccentric older dog-woman, she makes news for having her beloved dead pooch commercially cloned. That’s where Morris found her and what a kook-documentary superstar she proves to be. Though wacky, she comes off as utterly winning: a good person, possessed by passion, who made a lot of off-the-wall moves in life. But now she is apparently suing the filmmakers, not happy with how she was portrayed. Maybe she has a knack to surprise and a need to be in ink, but a McKinney vs. Morris trial would be the ultimate third act for her and maybe even a more personal Tabloid 2 for Morris.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 30, 2011 8:46am
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