Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TABLOID / Staff Review by Evan Salazar

There is a point in Errol Morris’ new documentary, TABLOID, when a tabloid journalist is speaking about a sex act perpetrated by the film’s main focus, Joyce McKinney. Straight faced, he says, “She chained him up,” but then he lets loose with a smile and says, “Well, I guess she used ropes, but ‘chained up’ sounds better.” In a film about lies, scandal, and the delusions people carry with them, it’s a surprisingly honest moment about myth-creating and fact-skewing. With this brief, candid aside, the journalist displays that he is willing to embellish the truth with the most provocative word-choice the facts allow. His ability to be honest about that doesn’t seem surprising – he writes for tabloids, after all, which even its journalists must be aware aren’t the most prestigious of news sources – but in a film all about fantasy and insular world-building, it is a very telling, funny, and finally, wise moment of self-awareness. Joyce McKinney could learn a thing or two.

Armed with a darling southern drawl and golden locks of voluminous hair, Joyce McKinney was the tabloid queen of the late 70s and early 80s. Her tale involves kidnapping, private detectives, the Mormon Church, bondage, disguises, and even cloning. The pieces fit together, believe it or not, but the way all these events are perceived through different sets of eyes is the focal point of the story. The film only has two real sources of information: McKinney, and the tabloid reporters writing about her. McKinney is clearly unstable (which the film never attempts to explore the origins of, one of its only true flaws), and the tabloids are, well, tabloids. They make their living off of giving exaggerated reports of already ridiculous stories, so who are we to trust? Other faces temporarily chime in, but these people were either only in the midst of the situation for a short while or are tenuously, if it all, connected.

We are left only with the woman who inspired all this mayhem, or the reporters who made the mayhem international news. Neither side can be totally trusted, yet I personally found myself on the side of the journalists. Throughout the film, McKinney proves times and time that again she is unstable, manic, and a pathological liar (a bit about her fingers being bitten off and her intestines being ripped out by a dog, all the while holding up both of her hands – all fingers in tact with no visible scarring – raises multiple, if not infinite eyebrows), and yet she is none the wiser to it. She has been living this life since the 1970s, and now in interviews conducted almost 35 years after the fact, she still holds onto her self-righteousness and victimizing. Even when the things she speaks out against might deserve criticism – religion, gossip, invasion of privacy, et cetera – she still comes across as slightly crazed and unhinged. She’s incredibly charismatic, however, and it’s no wonder she was such a huge deal for a short while. Her tongue is lightning fast and her wit sharp (when asked if she forced a man to have sex with her, she claims you can’t force a man to have sex with a woman if he doesn’t want to: “It’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter”), and she comes across as intelligent, overall. Which is important – the film never seems like it is trying to make a point of how crazy she is, and it never feels manipulative. Instead, Morris is confident that her words, the journalist’s words, and the newspaper clippings and photos will do the talking for themselves. And they certainly do.

If it’s not clear already, this is no “dry” documentary – I don’t think Morris has a dry documentary in him, anyhow. It’s lighting fast and well edited, and filled with hilarious and inspired interviews. I am not a big documentary guy because I find a lot of documentaries go too wide, too broad – war, health, nature, et cetera – and there is only so much depth you can mine from such nuanced things in 90 minutes. Unless you’re Ken Burns and have ten-hour plus documentaries, the level of sophistication you can give to such huge topics seems meager at best to me. But Morris is a master of the quirky, small, and strange – films like VERNON, FLORDIA or GATES OF HAVEN hone in on a small, small portion of the world and allows these small places and people to offer up big ideas. They’re specific, esoteric – and because of that offer up a much more filling and interesting viewing experience. TABLOID is no different. It is a strange, harrowing journey filled with all the pieces of a great dime store novel in a master filmmakers hand. And it’s all true – well, sort of. Maybe?

Evan Salazar is a member of the floor staff at The Loft Cinema and is currently going to school for Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. He doesn't mind being told he looks like Woody Allen. He can be contacted at