Jul 14, 2011
In his documentaries, Errol Morris is fascinated equally by interesting human subjects, the thin line between fact and fiction, and the slippery nature of the truth. Oscar Wilde's dictum, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple", which should be the motto of this country instead of "In God we Trust", is a recurring motif in Morris' films. As opposed to other documentary filmmakers who use the genre to tell "the truth", Morris explores whether the truth exists at all. In his films there is not one truth, there is no objectivity, everything depends on the perspective of the subject and the truth is extraordinarily relative. I think he is a genius.
He has explored serious subjects in excellent documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, in which he so effectively challenged the findings of a murder trial in Texas that the case was reopened and the accused, exonerated; The Fog of War, about Robert McNamara, Standard Operating Procedure, about the photographs of Abu Ghraib and the soldiers who took the fall for them, and, my favorite, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, about the guy who invented the lethal injection, who also happens to be a Holocaust denier. Tabloid, his much anticipated latest film, is about a much flimsier, lightweight subject, yet Morris handles it, as usual, with great intelligence. It is still about the nature of truth and the thin line between fact and fiction. And in this case a bit tangentially about the nature of tabloid news, and how they are manufactured, both by the subjects and the press.
Morris unearths the long forgotten story of Joyce McKinney, who, for a brief time in the Seventies, captivated the public with her bizarre amour fou for a Mormon man. Joyce is a charming, vivacious and histrionic raconteuse, a motherlode of Southern eccentricity. I'm not even sure if her there is an official classification for her behavior in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. People with some of her traits, like narcissism and mythomania, but without her sunny disposition may be classified as sociopaths.
Joyce tells us her version of how she went to London to look for her beloved Mormon fiancee after he vanished from her, according to her, abducted by a Mormon cult. How she did this is what landed her in the tabloids and on the wrong side of the law, and it is such zany, bizarre fun, you'll have to see the film for yourself. Suffice it to say that for the British police what she did could be construed as kidnapping and rape, but to her, in her own words, it was "a honeymoon".
Morris is not interested in the facts of the story. He is interested in the retelling by Joyce and other competing narratives. We also hear from two British tabloid journalists, from a gay ex-Mormon, who explains some of that religion's oddest tenets and from the pilot who flew Joyce to England (Joyce couldn't just fly across the Atlantic like the rest of us; she had to hire a private plane, take a bodyguard and bring recording equipment and a bottle of chloroform).
Once the British press gets word of her exploits, Joyce, a world-class tease, becomes an overnight sensation and enjoys her fifteen minutes, until a competing tabloid, in order to sell more papers, fishes out nasty details about her past. When she realizes she cannot control the narrative anymore, she officially goes nuts (as opposed to being just her bubbly, creative self) and tries to jump out a window. She reminds me of Princess Diana: another gifted manipulator who loved to have the press on her lap, as long as it told the story she wanted to tell, but complained bitterly when she could not control the narrative. The problem with tabloids is that they control the narrative, and people are incredibly naive if they think they can do anything about it. The recent news about the News of The World and the phone hacking tabloid scandal in England could not be a more dramatic reminder of this (and could not have come at a better time for this movie).
Joyce's story is not as tragic as Di's, but it is very sad. She seems to have great reserves of spunk and optimism, and she literally shines now that she is in the spotlight again. There is something touching, almost innocent, about her relationship with the tabloids, in comparison to what goes on today. In our age of reality shows and tabloid news on TV, regular fame-seeking schmoes understand the racket and they enter it willingly and with premeditation. They are already calculating all the ancillary benefits, products, endorsements, and exposure they can get even before they know exactly how they are going to embarrass themselves in front of the entire world. As Sacha Baron Cohen showed in Bruno, mothers are willing to subject their babies to anything as long as they can get them on TV. Joyce is not like that. She is so kooky, she invariably ends up making headlines on the tabloids. In the Eighties she landed there once again, for totally unrelated but equally bizarre reasons, providing this movie with one of the funnier twists I've ever seen in a film. My impression is that she didn't do what she did with the intent to become famous. I believe her when she says she wanted her Mormon lover back. I think she's so crazy that she can't keep her eye on the money ball, unlike other more business-oriented tabloid fodder who parade themselves mercilessly to keep the cash rolling in (Kardashians, Paris Hilton, etc). Joyce gets distracted by her own romantic view of herself and forgets to cash in. What moves her is not greed, but her own self-mythologizing. Fame finds her.
Tabloid is a very entertaining and funny movie, but Joyce's story is very sad. She has been writing a book about her story since it happened forty years ago and it is still a work in progress! This is heartbreaking and somehow heartening at the same time.