The truth is an ever elusive concept, especially in the films of Errol Morris. In the world of the much argued-over documentarian, various narratives vie for legitimacy while the accurate portrayal of events lies, in the words of a yellow-press journalist discussing conflicting storylines in Tabloid, “somewhere in between.” Ranging from the relatively passive, single-voice approach of The Fog of War, in which Morris lets subject Robert McNamara shape his own story with only occasional directorial challenges, to more probing investigations like The Thin Blue Line and Standard Operating Procedure, the filmmaker is obsessed with the subjective nature of a truth that cannot be definitively uncovered so long as we have to rely solely on the Rashomon-like retellings of unreliable witnesses.
Morris’s other obsession is with eccentric individuals and in addition to offering another interrogation into the nature of fact, Tabloid is a portrait of his newest “find,” beauty-queen-turned-alleged-kidnapper Joyce McKinney. Seen recounting her story against the abstract backdrop of Morris’s trademark interrotron system, McKinney is a spacey, yet engaging subject, a hopeless romantic given to loopy bursts of laughter and odd non sequiturs. Notorious in the late ‘70s for snatching her Mormon boyfriend away from his London mission, chaining him to the bed to fuck the religion out of him and then fleeing to America after he brought kidnapping charges against her, McKinney spins the tale to Morris’s camera as an epic saga of true love nearly triumphing over LSD brainwashing.
But that’s just one narrative and, as the film makes perhaps too insistently clear, there are at least three sides to every story. Other subjects who sit in front of the interrotron, ranging from a pair of London tabloid reporters to an ex-Mormon radio host, urge a more moderate interpretation, but none are any more reliable as witnesses than McKinney. Kent Gavin, the sleazoid ex-photographer for the Daily Mirror, which reported (possibly dubiously) on McKinney’s past as a prostitute, defends his outlet’s photographs against claims of doctoring by arguing that the negatives don’t lie. When asked if he still has the negatives, though, he’s forced to confess he hasn’t. But if the Daily Mirror erred on the side of one kind of sensation, their rival, the Daily Express, went in the opposite direction, portraying McKinney as a (literal, given the photo doctoring) nun. As Gavin smugly insists, and in words echoing the ex-Mormon’s interpretation, neither extreme can be taken as accurate.
All of which is old hat for Morris and Tabloid hardly spins the director’s art in any new directions. His new film is a slick, entertaining offering, playing at times like a tarted up E! True Hollywood Story, as it riffs on period tabloid headlines like “The Case of the Manacled Mormon” to craft amusing ripped-from-the-newspaper collages and interpolates strange bits of business like McKinney’s decision to fly to Korea to have her dead dog cloned. (At times the film seems as exploitative of an obviously troubled woman as the London rags that made her life miserable, but Morris simply allows her to tell her story in her own words—albeit with some directorial commentary—and she’s clearly happy to talk.)
What is new in Tabloid is Morris’s decision to forgo his increasingly maligned recreations in favor of a new aesthetic device: a mock television screen that projects the characters’ desires through a sort of pop-culture collective unconscious. If McKinney’s romanticism seems to take its cue from both the large and the small screens (she admits as much), then it only seems logical that Morris should carve a 1.33:1 not-quite-square out of the ‘Scope frame to cut away to clips from old Hollywood films, TV ads, and home movies as punctuation to his character’s narration. The “television set” on which this personal found-footage collage is projected is surrounded by a nebulous darkness, but when Morris uses the same device to broadcast public archival material related to the case, he frames the television screen with a deliberately flat period mock-up, suggesting that we’re watching the footage on a 1970s Zenith surrounded by eye-annihilating brown-on-brown wallpaper. In the film’s final interview clip with McKinney, Morris’s chief subject moves from the widescreen framing to the narrow window of the TV set, as Tabloid itself passes into the public record. The film may not get us any closer to the true facts of McKinney’s case than all the press materials it now joins in the archives, but like a breezy tabloid read, it makes for a diverting enough pastime.