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REVIEW: TABLOID, Directed by Errol Morris

Press Play By Matthew Seitz | Press Play July 12, 2011 at 11:00AM

"MY DEEP UNCERTAINTIES ABOUT THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS. King Harold either got stuck in the eye with an arrow or something else happened."-- @errolmorris, Twitter, July 9, 2011
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"MY DEEP UNCERTAINTIES ABOUT THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS. King Harold either got stuck in the eye with an arrow or something else happened."
-- @errolmorris, Twitter, July 9, 2011

By Jim Emerson

Ripped from today's headlines, Errol Morris's sensational Tabloid uncovers outrageous stories of sex, bondage, Mormons, kidnapping, cloning, drugging, buggery (or at least bugging) and betrayal circa 1977, and features more than one dog named Booger. The movie premiered almost a year ago, at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival -- yet, between the surveillance scandals at Rupert Murdoch's gossip rags and the Tony-sweeping Trey Parker-Matt Stone missionary-position musical phenomenon The Book of Mormon, Tabloid could hardly be more of-this-very-moment.

Given the timing of its release and the nature of its subject, you might say Tabloid suggests that history doesn't have to begin as tragedy and repeat itself as farce; it can be farce every time. The lurid reports recounted here swirl around Joyce McKinney, a blonde 1970s beauty queen (Miss Wyoming) with an IQ of 168 who goes all-out to win the man of her dreams, a clean-skinned Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. When they met, she says, "It was like in the movies." Long story short, she and a (besotted slave?) accomplice wind up accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing the object of her desire. The way Joyce tells it, her beloved suddenly disappears without explanation as they are planning their wedding. With the help of a private eye and a good platonic friend, she tracks him down in England, rescues him from his Mormon "cult" brainwashers, and takes him to a cottage in Devon where she ties him to a bed, ravishes him (consensually) for three wonderful days of fun, food and sex. And love, too. Preparing to give him a warm cinnamon-oil back rub, she rips off his Mormon underwear and burns the "smelly" garments in the fireplace, an act both practical and symbolic.

Others, including Kirk himself sometimes, choose to present the situation quite differently. Words like "abduction" and "male rape" are bandied about, not just in the press but in the courtroom. Depending on which tabloid you read (say, the Daily Express or the Daily Mirror), you might follow the story as "The Mormon Sex in Chains Case" or "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." One yellow journalist, who is quite fond of the eye-catching S&M connotations of the phrase "spread-eagled," admits that Joyce would probably say rope was used, but that "chains" is much better for headlines. (As he and others use these sensationalistic terms, they are splashed across the screen in screaming headline fonts: "OBSESSED"; "CHAINED!"; "SPREAD EAGLED"; "DOWN SLAVE!"; "GUILT"…) That Kirk was physically attached to a bed for sexual purposes seems to be something everyone can agree upon. But was he a willing participant? Joyce says he admitted in court that the sex was "more consensual" the third time than it was the first.

Nobody more relishes telling a juicy tale -- preferably one with absurd twists and multiple contradictory points of view -- than Errol Morris, and this one's a flat-out doozy. You couldn't make it up. The film's cheeky, splashy style expresses what a blast the filmmaker is having bouncing allegations and innuendos off one another, and his goofball giddiness is infectious. Morris's trademark present-day Interrotron interviews with the principals are intercut with animated scandal-sheet headlines, clippings and photographs, some of them carefully pasted (or scotch-taped) into scrapbooks as if they were treasured albums of tabloid memories. Broadcast video is presented on an old Zenith television in front of avocado-hued, diamond-patterned wallpaper. Home video, stock footage and archival films appear in a round-cornered frame in the center of the otherwise black screen, the jittery edges suggesting 8mm photography.

"Tabloid" has everything a fascinatingly salacious story requires and more -- not just the kinky sex and layers of intrigue to keep you guessing about who's lying and who's telling whose version of the truth, but the humor, smarts, skill and sizzle to make it all irresistibly enthralling. Just because it has so much fun being naughty, though, doesn't mean it's nothing more than lightweight entertainment.

Joyce says, "You know, you can tell a lie long enough that you believe it," and Morris has always been fascinated by the areas in which truth, deception and self-deception overlap. Like other Morris movies (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Standard Operating Procedure), Tabloid relies on unreliable narrators to launch an epistemological investigation (Morris claims to have once been a private eye) into questions that don't necessarily have knowable answers. (See tweet above.) But Morris reveals that's often because nobody's yet asked (or even discovered) the right questions -- the most important one being: What is the evidence?

One of the theses of "Standard Operating Procedure" is that cameras not only recorded atrocities and abuses at Abu Grahib prison, but that some of the acts would not have happened if it weren't for the presence of those cameras. Morris's New York Times blog has detailed the hidden illusions and secret histories behind supposedly "documentary" photographs. Likewise, Tabloid illustrates the theory, in quantum physics, that the act of observing something alters what is observed. The movie itself is about the process of watching it -- how we process, interpret and piece together what we see and hear. Or think we do. (See Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, a profound inquiry into the meaning of life and death that presents itself as an increasingly complex question: What are these four people -- a lion trainer, a topiary gardener, a naked mole rat specialist and an artificial intelligence expert -- doing in the same movie?)

And that's where the fun-house (Daily) Mirror of the tabloid press comes in. Though the non-fictional soap opera An American Family played on PBS in 1973, there was no such thing back then as a "reality show" -- or nothing that went by that label, anyway. Today it seems, on every screen and every page, there's nothing but -- fiction spiced with cinema verite, genuine emotions shaped into performances, improvisations that are partially scripted. Tabloid reveals what happens to people when they're forced to create their own public personae. How much do these media-crafted clones alter others' view of them, and their view of themselves -- actually changing how they perceive reality?

The mixed metaphor of stepping into the spotlight and being under the microscope aptly captures the dichotomous nature of Joyce's situation: she is (whether she likes it or not) exposed in public, every detail of her past and present selves subjected to intense examination. At a certain point, the press finds she fits neatly into the age-old madonna-whore template: In the Daily Mirror she's a slutty Eve, the fallen temptress who seduced and corrupted Kirk; in the Daily Express, she's the saintly Christian martyr, an almost virginal (except for Kirk) victim of love, misunderstood by a hypocritical, dirty-minded society. As several observers note, somewhere in-between, maybe, is the truth.

EPILOGUE: Joyce McKinney has recently appeared at pre-release screenings of Tabloid around the country to vocally protest one version of herself she sees presented in the film: "It’s not my story,” she told the New York Times (a broadsheet, not technically a tabloid). “And I definitely plan to sue them. What they did was unconscionable. I always wanted to write a book, because my real story has never been told, except the Mormon version.” As the movie says, she is writing a book to tell her real story: "A Very Special Love Story."

Tabloid co-producer Mark Lipson said in the Times: "It’s a Looney Tunes ‘Rashomon,’ but ‘Rashomon’ all the same…. [It's] documentary as film noir, as a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it’s totally perverse. I see her as the princess who crosses an ocean to rescue her somewhat reluctant, pear-shaped prince. She should take pride in knowing she had that kind of guts.”

Do these people know how to sell a movie or what?

Jim Emerson is a Seattle-based writer, film critic and online video-maker. He is the founding editor of RogerEbert.com (where he also publishes his blog Scanners).


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