Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Tabloid


I think, when all is said and done, that the influence of Bowling For Columbine and Supersize Me on the modern documentary, cannot be understated. Whatever you think about the films themselves, or their message and politics, you cannot deny that their styles of engagement and information can be seen in everything from Waiting for Superman to Inside Job. This comes in on what the films wanted to say as well, because most modern documentaries are about big issues; Health, medical care, the bank bailouts, gun control, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, education, all have been documented in modern style. So when I say that Tabloid, a film with very little in the way of a larger point to make about society or culture, is easily on the best documentaries I've seen in years, you know I'm not fucking around.

The movie documents the story of Joyce McKinney, a woman who fell in love with a Mormon Missionary named Kirk Anderson. After he disappeared, she sought him heavily and eventually tracked him to England where, according to the tabloids and Kirk, she kidnapped and raped him (she naturally, tells a different story). Interviews are held with Joyce herself, 2 tabloid reporters for rival newspapers, one of her accomplices and a former Mormon missionary who explains the psychological aspects of the case. And there's one other person, but we'll ignore that for fear of spoilers, and yes there are spoilers. For those film minded among you, this film is directed by Errol Morris, who's previous works include some truly must-see documentaries like Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War and Mr. Death.

As stated earlier, this is not a film about a big event or important issues. In order for this film to work, two things need to be in place: The story itself has to be interesting and the presentation has to be engaging. The story itself is deeply unique and engaging, managing not only to tell us Joyce's story (not just during the story, but before and after), but the story the press and Kirk told, the story of the dueling tabloids over this story and even the more-than-slightly creepy aspects of Mormonism. And to the movie's credit, it never judges or tries to state which version of events it thinks is correct.

But the engagement is almost scarily well executed. Aside from spicing up the simple interviews with constant switching of camera angles (and has another documentary done that? I can't think of one) the film presents the testimony alongside evidence such as photographs and new clips, to the point where someone's statements are occasionally presented alongside evidence which outright contradicts them. And the technique of having two interviews running against each other (though not simultaneously I should add) adds bits of tension that are usually absent in most documentaries. Call it Rashomon syndrome, but the fact that no real truth is revealed is far more interesting than if they could have and did tell us what really happened.

What I find most fascinating is the presentation of Joyce herself. Combining her own, often disconcertingly convincing testimony, with the often damning testimony of people around her (one person hired by her tells of something that essentially damns her all on it's own), it's clear that she is a sincere and intelligent person, who truly believed that what she was doing was the right thing. It's also clear, despite a sympathetic portrayal, that she's paranoid and more than a little unhinged. Some of this can be chalked up to her ordeal, which was considerable, but if her own testimony is to be believed, she was never entirely together.

To say that it's not about important events isn't to say it has nothing on it's mind. A good portion of the movie is, as the title might suggest, given over to the tabloid coverage of the case as told through two tabloid reporters from rival papers who took violently different approaches (the story was apparently HUGE in the UK, but apparently never really hit the ground in the US). Again, in a masterstroke, the two of them are presented as either naïve and overly trusting or slimy and cruel, but never states which of them should be considered in the right, if either. And while it was clearly not in the film's intent, you can see many parallels between this case and the recent phone hacking scandal in the UK.

I don't know how many theaters are going to be playing Tabloid (I myself had to hit NYC to see it) and if they are I can't promise it'll be in theaters for much longer. But if it's playing near you, you really should make an effort to see it. It's a uniquely made and masterfully crafted documentary, and a sure contender for one of the best films of the year.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders if people who follow celebrity news will like this movie as much as he did.

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