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Tabloid (DVD Review)

28 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.7 million
$24.98 DVD, ‘R’ for sexual content and nudity.

The serious side of the more or less singular nonfiction filmmaker Errol Morris is exemplified by 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, which sprung onetime Death Row resident Randall Adams from a prison after a Texas-style miscarriage of justice over a Dallas murder. And also by 2003’s Oscar-winning portrait of Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War, which didn’t just contribute to documentary history but history itself. Then, there’s the deadpan madcap side, which I am all but certain Morris takes just as seriously.

The entirety of Tabloid is in the great tradition of my favorite twisted Morris moments — as in the scene where the younger son blasts his electric guitar over the graves of dead animals in 1978’s Gates of Heaven’s pet cemetery and the one in 2003’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter where its subject talks of having visited Nazi death camps on his honeymoon. This is because Tabloid heroine Joyce McKinney, who’s on screen most of the time, is so batty that the movie never gets out of the Twilight Zone (not that we’d want it to). She could give the Beale ladies from Grey Gardens a real run for the money.

Finally catching up with the picture after a severe and elongated projection mishap at a critics’ screening forced me to bolt from the theater, I nonetheless tried to see it without knowing too many of its particulars — which is not my usual preference but in this case the way to go. At 88 minutes, Tabloid is roughly divided into half-hour thirds, and in each of the second two, there is a revelation that knocked me for a loop: one about McKinney’s “resumé” and one involving her choice of pets.

Her story, which was big at the time, is nonetheless one I don’t remember — which was certainly not the fault of the British tabloid press, absolutely portrayed here as being in the spirit of Rupert Murdoch and “all the little Murdochs” (to steal a phrase once utilized when speaking of the now largely forgotten Arthur Godfrey). The basics are that the onetime beauty queen got an obsession for not just a Mormon male — but one who was then sent to England to perform a devout mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After McKinney hired a pilot to fly her there so she could abduct her former lover, he either was or wasn’t a willing participant when she tied him to a bed, and here the documentary naturally gets into a discussion of whether one can fake an erection. Somehow, I don’t think this is a movie Mitt Romney is going to be showing in as part of his campaign literature.

From then on, the story gets even crazier, with bail-jumping part of the equation. Per usual, Morris shoots his talking heads dead-on and only slightly less than in close-up, which has a dramatic effect with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Other heads include the pilot who flew McKinney to England with a now deceased accomplice — also a couple of tabloid reporters who, despite having “seen it all,” seem to regard the subject as something of a novel case. Though these men are around to contradict McKinney’s statements — with the frequency of, say, beats in an old frenzied Buddy Rich drum solo — more of the movie than not is McKinney talking to Morris without the filmmaker’s own refutation, which effectively allows her to hang herself.

Even so, she projects a kind of loopy Gracie Allen logic on her own terms, and it isn’t all that easy for any viewer to come out and categorically accuse her of not believing what she is saying. Even so, McKinney’s current defamation lawsuit against Morris (reported earlier this month) isn’t too easy to swallow given that a) so much of what we see and hear are her own words; and b) how difficult to believe that anyone could go into this project without knowing what kind of portrait would result, given so much of Morris’s previous work. For some people, perhaps, “Oscar-winning filmmaker” is all they have to hear. In any event, I’m intrigued, from the instances of what we learn here, just who McKinney will manage to wangle as character witnesses.

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