Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has spent the past 15 years dealing with some pretty heavy subjects: torture at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), America's role in Vietnam (The Fog of War), and capital punishment (Mr. Death). Given that recent track record, Morris' deliriously entertaining new film, Tabloid, is a throwback to the lighter, loopier subject matter of the filmmaker's earliest work: classics such as 1978's Gates of Heaven (about a pet cemetery) and 1981's Vernon, Florida (about eccentric residents in the titular town).
Tabloid is so crazy that synopsis is elusive, but the subject is Joyce McKinney, a now-middle-aged woman who has found herself at the center of two very different tabloid stories. McKinney's first bit of notoriety came as a twentysomething in the late '70s, when her Mormon boyfriend, Kirk, left for a mission overseas or, in McKinney's mind, was "abducted by a cult."
The former beauty pageant contestant — "a slim, sweet, Southern blonde" — sets out to "liberate" the man she loves, recruiting accomplices with a newspaper ad ("help a lovely fox fulfill a unique sexual romantic fantasy") and flying to London, where she ends up abducting/rescuing her man from the Mormon mission — perhaps at gunpoint — and squiring him away for a lost weekend of bondage, (forced?) sex, and chocolate cake.
The subsequent legal mess became known in the British tabloids as the case of "the beauty queen" and "the manacled Mormon sex slave." "There was something in that story for everyone," a writer who covered the case notes.
But if you think that's more than enough story for a 90-minute documentary, well, there are many more twists to come, from "32-Year-Old Sex-in-Chains Story" to "Cloned Puppies."
Needless to say, this is a very subjective account. The "manacled Mormon" himself declined to be interviewed and the additional interview subjects — a couple of tabloid journalists, a short-lived accomplice, a former Mormon missionary turned activist — are minimal. This is McKinney's show and Morris seems less interested in the truth of her testimony than the telling.
Has anyone ever won Best Actress for a documentary? At turns tearful, joking, biting, flirting, incredulous — McKinney should be a contender. "Everyone was just mesmerized by her performance," one witness says of court testimony that included the assertion, "I would have skied down Mt. Everest nude with a carnation up my nose for the love of that man."
But Tabloid is great not just for the incredible story. If the oddball subject matter is a throwback to Morris' earliest work, the detached, ironic air of mystery is reminiscent of his 1988 masterpiece The Thin Blue Line, while the interviews, as in Morris' other recent work, make use of the filmmaker's "Interrotron" camera, into which subjects can look directly while looking at the interviewer (Morris himself, sometimes heard off-screen asking questions).
Morris spices up the story with a kaleidoscope of other visual content: newspaper clippings, file footage, risqué photographs, home videos, cartoons, car commercials, film noir scenes, clips of bathing beauties, etc. Best is his use of words. As an interviewer, Morris lingers over odd, colorful phrases — "inseminate," "spread-eagling," "barking mad." As a director, he splays words across the screen, sometimes as ironic counterpoint: When McKinney testifies, "I wasn't looking for just any guy. I wanted a special guy," the screaming tabloid headline "SEX HOSTESS" flashes on screen. Repeatedly, key words are doubled on-screen — superimposed over the interview subject — for emphasis: "GUILT," "CHAINED!," "KIDNAPPED," "DOO-DOO DIPPER," "IMPOTENCE," "MINIBAR."
Morris is one of the few true geniuses in contemporary American movies and this ostensibly minor work underscores his brilliance. Where Morris' The Thin Blue Line built a hypnotic, unnerving rhythm in its steady pursuit of truth and his Fast, Cheap and Out of Control was a symphony of visual and sound editing, Tabloid turns the standard documentary device of the talking-head interview into music via the deployment of jump cuts, a subtly playful score, the array of visual information, and McKinney's own bebop-solo-worthy verbal performance.
Opens Friday, September 30th