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While the critical response to Tabloid - Errol Morris' most recent feature documentary - has been largely favourable, there's a slight undercurrent of disappointment to be found in some commentator's opinions. This, they remark, is slightly 'lesser' Morris. Some make it obvious, others briefly allude to it not being 'his best'. It's certainly true that a deconstruction of a tabloid sex scandal isn't as 'grand' a theme as justice, warfare or (a favoured subject) the death penalty. However, can we begrudge Morris for tackling such a comparatively 'easy' target when the results are so exhilarating?
While there are plentiful thematic comparisons to the Morris' filmography, Tabloid could also somewhat accurately be described as a non-fiction riff on ideas presented by Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon. The documentary recounts the tale of a one Joyce McKinney - an American ex-beauty queen who through a series of bizarre events ended up the centre of a British criminal case: affectionately dubbed by the British tabloid papers as the 'Mormon sex in chains case'. Through her interview, and those of various others involved in the affair, the film examines how truth and fiction can often become inseparably intertwined as the various parties involved recount very different versions of events. The already unusual case becomes even more bizarre when the British tabloids - specifically the Daily Express and Mirror - grow obsessed with McKinney and her strange backstory.
As a story, it's an instantly compelling one - a surreal concoction of kidnapping, beauty queens, sex and religion. You can easily see how the tabloids became enamoured with the scandal. And McKinney is a fascinating subject. We'll politely describe her as 'somewhat' eccentric (and a little deluded), but the film goes on to capture an extraordinarily driven and charismatic woman whose life fell apart for a plethora of reasons. Later twists and turns in the story (it involves South Korean cloning - seriously) are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Morris toes this potentially combustible contradiction like the expert he is.
The titular newspapers don't come into focus until around midway through the film (although an Express journalist is one of the core interviewees throughout). The first half is largely dedicated to the Rashomon-like recounts of the McKinney case itself. When Morris does take the time to examine the effects that tabloid probes into McKinney's life had on her and those around her, the film's major thematic concern becomes obvious. Effortlessly resonating with contemporary society, Tabloid becomes a film that examines concepts like celebrity, privacy and the very nature of journalism. It's hard to tell whether there was phone tapping - believe McKinney's paranoid take on things and there was - but the parallels with recent, (appropriately) scandalous developments in the British tabloid industry are all too obvious. It's an unusually stylish documentary too - the frequent use of important text flashing on the screen like a tabloid headline is a well-judged visual decision that cleverly ties the subject matter into the overall look and feel of the film.
There's no denying that shady tabloids are an easy subject to critique. But Morris rarely judges, and ultimately lets the viewer make up their own minds on the larger-than-life characters he documents. As a documentary about exploitation, the film is anything but exploitative. It is an entertaining, funny, strange, sad and shocking piece of work. It's one of the most compelling films I've seen recently, and dismissing it on the basis of Morris' past work is unfair. Joyce McKinney is certainly no Robert McNamra, but Morris is still a master craftsman who is able to shine a spotlight on his subjects like few other documentarians.
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