Monday, July 25, 2011

Tabloid

Tales of the lurid and tawdry are so commonplace in todays media for many reasons.  There's always been, and always will be, a great fascination in stories of the famous, and not-so-famous crashing and burning.  Part of that thrill is the innocent observor wondering in bewilderment, "How the hell did that happen?"  And while trashy and disturbing, headlines and soundbytes make up so much of our modern existense; they survive only because we want them to.  The plights of people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony-- they became famous for reasons, but the became a part of pop cultural lexicon because we kept reading and talking about them.  One such truly bizarre story is the make-up of Errol Morris' endlessly entertaining new documentary Tabloid, which has it all-- a story of sex, innocence, religion, out-of-nowhere nuttiness all consumed by a global press capturing everything, and an audience ready to eat it up.  The results are pure cinematic eye candy, for Morris, an exceptionally gifted documentarian (and Academy Award winner for the superb The Fog of War) knows he has a subject of such dirty glee that he doesn't need to offer any intellectual treatise, he knows will be glued by the crazy, trashy story at hand.  The story is that of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen and good ole fashioned Southern belle (one with an alleged 168 IQ), who in the early 1970s fell in love.  What came of this was a jail sentence, instant notoriety, an absolutely crazy modern existence, and an wonderfully observing piece of pop filmmaking that's oddly sweet and completely mysterious.

McKinney was a very pretty young woman, a model(?) who while living in Salt Lake City met a boy named Kirk Anderson.  She fell head over heels in love, just as Anderson, a Mormon, was sent to London for his missionary service.  A forlorn, and perhaps off her rocker, McKinney travelled to London (with a nutty plan and even nuttier accomplices) to be with him and save him from the church that stood in their way.  She arrived and abducted (or perhaps he went willingly) and held Anderson at a country hostage and forced sex (or perhaps not) on the devout and conflicted man for three days before being arrested and becoming an international tabloid fixture.  There's more scandal in store, especially when delving into McKinney's past work, a questionable trade that's never quite conclusively answered, but one things for sure: her costly expenses and trip to London came from somewhere.  The greatest disposal Morris has is McKinney's presence, and that see is such an ingratiating participant.  The great fun of Tabloid is also the great frustration as we'll never know what actually happened, the talking heads in Morris' film are all seedy underling types (understandably Kirk Anderson doesn't show up to defend himself) which shrouds the film with mystery and endless and enduring curiosity, much like tabloids themselves.

Yet McKinney is such a lively recantour of her tale, and just about everything else.  She comes across absolutely convincing and absolutely crazy at the same time.  What's striking is the lucidity and conviction she conveys.  Because of this the actually truth matters little, she believes this, and that's instantly felt; she was saving the man she loved.  Of course she would later mature into an isolated woman forever trying to write her memoirs while cloning her dog with the help of a nutty doctor in Korea, all of which adds to the curiosity factor.  Especially when she bemoans her mistreatment in press, even though she used and lived off the attention it gave her.  Nonetheless, she's a great interview, and Morris seemingly doesn't have to coax anything out of her-- she lets it all out, and within the first reel of the splendid film, most of details of her bizarre story are already laid out, though he's as tough on her as he was with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War.  To aid, Morris adds an almost kitschy aesthetic to Tabloid, full of appropriately gimmicky cartoons and tabloid snapshots, either as commentary or joke.  The added layer to Tabloid, and perhaps the juiciest is the Mormon commentary (already hot in the presses due to the success of the musical The Book of Mormon, and forever entangled in controversy), Morris even adds a former missionary and ex-Mormon as an expert talking head.  But whatever the case, and whatever is already known about the religion adds a conflict to the story, and a suspense that perhaps McKinney's love wasn't quite the prisoner that the church and media made him out to be.

A case like McKinney's will always endure because we want it too.  Morris knows that, as likely does McKinney herself.  Gratefully, the story is preserved, in all it's bizarre glory, by a filmmaker with such an uncanny eye for such bizarre human interest stories, and presents all the trashy details with such a humane, non-judgmental scope that raises an eyebrow, and a guffaw, and perhaps a tactful urge to grow up from such lurid and crazy sex stories.  A-

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