I love Errol Morris. I don't love every one of his movies… a few of them are tough sits, movies I can't imagine watching a second time… but I think he's a tremendous character and a valuable voice in the world of documentary film. He's been doing it right for as long as I've been watching movies, and his latest film, "Tabloid," is one of the most entertaining he's made in recent memory.
Right around the time I discovered Siskel and Ebert on television, they discovered Errol Morris and "Gates Of Heaven," and they started talking about him like he had invented fire. I didn't get a chance to see his films until 1985, when I got hold of "Gates Of Heaven" and "Vernon, Florida" on home video. As soon as I saw those two movies, I was smitten. He is an expert at finding the exact right crazy person to talk to and pointing a camera at them and letting them talk and tell their own stories in their own words. It is amazing how entertaining people are if you let them find and express their own voice, when you don't lead them. Reality TV turns everyone into plastic-faced freaks, hyper-aware of the camera. Morris has a gift for making people forget there's a camera, so they talk past it, directly to him. The result is that it feels like they're talking directly to us, and it's very intimate.
Do yourself a favor. Do not go look up Joyce McKinney on Wikipedia or anywhere else. Do not read about her story. Do not ruin it for yourself. You will get a chance to see "Tabloid." It doesn't have a distributor yet, but it will. Morris is a name, and his films like "The Thin Blue Line" and "A Brief History Of Time" and "The Fog Of War" have made money in the documentary world. He's got weight. He is a brand thanks to his constant writing, producing, and his careful management of his own celebrity. He's as sure a bet as there is in the documentary world, I'd argue, and with a film that has as much energy and dark humor as "Tabloid," he could easily best his own previous record at the box-office.
And, yes, in a case like this, I do think it matters. His last film, "Standard Operating Procedure," dealt with important subjects, but it was a film that very few people were willing to see. I'm a fan of his work and I still found myself dragging my feet. Guantanamo abuses are obviously something we need to confront and understand and deal with, but watching them on film? It is not the sort of thing you just casually throw on while you're working. "Tabloid" is propulsive storytelling, and the sort of lurid subject matter that real tabloids feed on. In this case, Morris is telling the story itself, and the story of what happened when the tabloids got hold of this. He is examining how a story like this becomes fodder, and what happens to the people involved when it does.
Joyce McKinney is his primary interview in the film, and she's the force of nature at the center of the story. She was a beauty queen, a hot little number, and she fell in love with a guy. She made the mistake of falling for a Mormon, though, and his family and his community sent him overseas on a mission to get away from her. She followed him. Things got weird. That's all you need to know. The details are so amazing and so compelling, especially as laid out by Joyce and then illustrated by Morris, that you find yourself just agreeing with Joyce. She's entirely reasonable. Nothing she explains sounds crazy or odd or dangerous. She's a sweet little old lady, telling a story about a lost love, and she seems gentle, solid.
It's not at all the Joyce McKinney that the media at the time portrayed. Did they get the real story? Did they ruin an innocent woman? Did they pick the right story to follow with her sex scandal, and is it fair how she was treated? Did she game the system? Did it game her back? Who was Joyce McKinney? Does she even remember the truth today? Morris keeps peeling back layers on this woman, and the more she talks, the less clear she becomes. It's a sad and often funny film, and it seems like one of the most casually awesome films Morris has ever made. The film doesn't reach for greater meaning, but because it focuses on this one woman and telling her story well, it raises all these giant questions.
It's really exciting to see a master like Morris get it this right at this point in his career, and I hope "Tabloid" finds a distributor soon so audiences can enjoy one of the craziest yarns I've seen spun in a while.
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