Morris' 'Tabloid': A Twisted Fairy Tale
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven," "Standard Operating Procedure") calls "Tabloid," his latest CT scan of an obsessive psyche, "sad, sick and funny." How else to describe the fabricated life of Joyce McKinney, a dotty, 60-something blonde whose pathologically romantic imagination has clearly never brooked much interference from reality? Morris' interviews with the "barkin' mad" McKinney and some of the aging "dwarves" who fed off her fantasies and scandals may inspire hilarity or horror (or both), but the canny methods the filmmaker uses to get deep inside his subjects are, as usual, utterly riveting.
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"Tabloid" opens on a soft-focus "movie" of a pretty girl in a long white dress, her blond hair shag-cut Farrah Fawcett-style (we're in the mid-'70s). As she drifts around a greensward, young Joyce McKinney begins to read from her never-completed memoir "A Very Special Love Story": "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess ...." These fairy-tale images bracket "Tabloid," framing the world as McKinney, now a lonely recluse -- except for five (cloned) dogs named Booger (don't ask) -- continues to see it.
Present-day McKinney faces Morris' camera like it was manna from heaven. Backed by a deep blue, frame-spanning curtain, jolly Joyce chronicles her adventures, clearly resurrected by the spotlight. (McKinney has been turning up at "Tabloid" screenings all around the country, gleefully screaming, "Liar!" at the screen). Reliving her 15 minutes of fame, she's all actress, a fading Shirley Temple remembering when she was virginal Juliet pursuing her brainwashed Romeo, held hostage by his Mormon "family."
In 1977, when her boyfriend suddenly vanished, Joyce hired private detectives to track him down. Seems his church had dispatched him to England to do missionary work. Undaunted, McKinney hopped on a plane, then kidnapped her pudgy soul mate and locked him up in a cottage where ... actually, it's a bit fuzzy what went down in darkest Devonshire. Could the hapless Mormon really have been manacled and raped by his diminutive stalker? Or did the lovebirds enjoy a honeymoon weekend full of "fun, food and sex"?
Think "Rashomon," starring a consummate fantasist, whose leading man is more repressed Mormon mouse than male Sleeping Beauty she can arouse with a kiss. When British tabloids dug into McKinney's Los Angeles past, turns out she once advertised her ability to fulfill any fantasy ("Ph.D. in drama") and posed nekkid in S&M tableaux. Recalling Bettie Page, McKinney looks eerily innocent in her "dirty" pix, an enchanted princess at play, dressing up and fooling around.
Morris turns his "truth"-extracting Interrotron (a special camera he invented for interviews) on a surviving McKinney accomplice, an amiable sleaze whose age hasn't diminished his horndog appreciation of the pretty, curvaceous blonde who enlisted his aid in her improbable quest. Then there are the old-timers who rode the wave of McKinney's nationwide notoriety after she was collared by Scotland Yard: the British gossip columnist, still chortling over upstaging Joan Collins when he squired the sexpot kidnapper to a glitzy premiere of "The Stud"; and a cheerfully slimy tabloid photographer ("All I ever wanted was to photograph her with her clothes off").
Astonishing how juiceless are Joyce's men-in-waiting, including admirers and pals who appear only in black-and-white snapshots and tabloid photos. But the princess, past and present, claims center stage, her character fully fleshed by the power of her self-created role. Always subversive, Morris digitally snips and pastes his diva within her 'Scope frame, creating faux-cuts that "jump" her to different sides of the screen. The effect is to undermine McKinney's stability in the space she craves to own.
Sometimes Morris squeezes the young McKinney into a tiny old-fashioned TV-set screen. Intercutting those pastel images from vintage TV with romantic '50s ad clips for kitchens and cars drains our ex-beauty queen of her fearsome individuality. Sans fairy dust, McKinney devolves into just another generic housewife dreamed up by "Mad Men."
There's a haunting shot in Morris' 1997 "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" that's key to his work. An old gardener has spent the last 15 years of his life teasing out the shape of a bear in a perishable shrub. In darkest night, as rain slants down, the camera tilts to look up at this looming topiary, its contours haloed in mist and sparkles of light. Lovely yet hair-raising, this image evokes Morris' fascination with the ways human beings latch on to some life-organizing principle, an often silly, evanescent but wonderfully mysterious vision -- OK, an obsession -- that morphs them into artists and stars, magicking ordinary lives into the stuff of romance novels, movies, TV reality shows.
The shape of Joyce McKinney's "topiary" tale may look silly and sordid as can be, but in his role as an invisible surgeon engaged in the most delicate of dissections, Errol Morris knows how wrong we are to think that "the profound and ridiculous are incompatible."
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.