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DOC NYC: 'Tabloid' Finds Errol Morris Back In Exceptional & Weird Territory

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 27, 2010 at 9:45AM

Doc NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival, runs November 3-9. We’ve got an early peek at a few films.
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Doc NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival, runs November 3-9. We’ve got an early peek at a few films.

Few will ever forget the great fight between the clashing Errol Morris personalities. Although being split in two seemed to work for him considering the quality and quantity of his output, the different creative minds - one wanted to focus on the weird, the other the political - were forced to lock horns after a heated debate on what their next venture would be. The former (and some will say original) wanted to do another in the vein of "Gates of Heaven" or "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" while the latter was more interested in the political, the historical, the topical. It was a brutal dispute, one rile with foul language and blood. Needless to say, the subsequent skirmish left the two in a mess, immediately hospitalized in adjacent rooms. Now, egos subdued, they've made an agreement: the quirky one would go on hiatus, and the partisan would continue working. However, the exhausting work on "Fog of War" and "Standard Operating Procedure" left the working one in an extreme fatigue. Coming out of hiding, the idiosyncratic has returned with "Tabloid," a bizarre story following a former Miss USA contestant who may or may not have raped her Mormon fiancé, and the ensuing tabloid account.

Joyce McKinney, ex-beauty pageant member and unofficial Charlie's Angel, fell in love and became engaged to Mormon Kirk Anderson. One day, Kirk disappears without notice. Feeling something was afoul, McKinney hires a private investigator to search for her beau, who finds the man in England on a religious mission. Joyce promptly packs her backs and recruits close friend KJ to head over and win back her brainwashed love. Now, here's when things get fishy: Joyce explains that her husband went with her, willingly, to a cottage where she cuffed him to a bed and they had a massive amount of sex to cure him. When out in town for a breather, he was discovered and returned, while our two heroes were arrested for kidnapping. Weeks later, out on probation, they escape to the states disguised as a deaf-mute couple and detail their goofy secret life in pictures sold to the tabloids.

Now, this is the story told by McKinney, and while it's weird, her demeanor is cute and innocent. Other interviews include a former Mormon, the private investigator, and the two editors of the participating tabloids "The Daily Express" and "The Daily Mirror." They all shed a different light on what might have actually happened, though interestingly never have enough facts to completely prove their side of the story. The most interesting perspective comes from the Express and Mirror, the former working exclusively with Joyce and the latter digging into her rowdy past. One anecdote involves two very different issues, both focusing on our favorite felon, hitting the press the same day: The Express lightheartedly showcasing McKinney's costumed life, this time as a nun, while the Mirror ran a story about her work as a call-girl in California, complete with nudie stills that Joyce claimed were doctored. Big surprise: the editor claims that all of the original pictures (including many that were not printed) were lost.

While no concrete answers on what actually happened surface (it's impossible), the film examines this peculiar type of celebrity and those who profit off of their oddball misadventures. Morris thankfully digs deep into the humanity of his subject, detailing her life of recluse years after her eminence leveled. Self-shot video tapes reveal her at her most vulnerable and most damaged, free from the naive act she puts on in front of other people. Her hunger for fame didn't subside, it merely hibernated, and Morris also expounds on her second round in the tabloids, which is so completely off-kilter (yes, even considering the kidnap/rape story) that she becomes a complete enigma. The end product is quite a ride, and the director provides enough for everyone to make their own case on what actually happened, which will all depend on how naive or insane you think McKinney is.

It's no secret that the filmmaker has a distinct style that he's been using for at least two decades now, but it's also one that never thuds and always carries an unexplainable amount of strength to whatever topic he's covering. There's the always moving orchestral score, the conversational interviews, and stylish cutaways that always feel purposeful rather than filler. The interview style really works best here, considering the entire film is about differing takes on one story. Morris lets each person spout their tall-tale, rarely interfering and never feeling patronizing, and it's hard not to get completely absorbed into their giant epic. Truthfully, this is the most engaging Morris has been in a long time, though maybe it has something to do with the subject of this compared to the seriousness of his past few. That's not to say that his previous were substandard, they're actually still quite fantastic, but he hasn't been this lively in a long time. Layered above interviews are various words, ones taken from the interviews that act as grabbing headlines for these spoken stories. It could be gimmicky, but its striking and sparing use works well with the tone of the film.

Exhibiting a playful side that he hasn't shown in years, "Tabloid" is an intricately layered and brisk documentary that hits all the right notes. While any Morris jaunt is better than none, here's hoping he peers into the unusual more often and that this film isn't just a little detour. [A]

This article is related to: Documentarian, Tabloid, Errol Morris


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