The Tabloidization of Errol Morris

by Thomas Britt

26 Jan 2012


Most of us have been there: The moment in a conversation when we realize that the person with whom we’re speaking is oversharing. We want to listen, but even listening becomes stressful as the pace and intensity of the monologue increases. Small talk becomes a recitation of a life story, and all of its heights and hardships. The longer this continues, we realize we’re approaching a point of no return, wherein it’s easier to indulge the talker than to embarrass them by saying, “this isn’t appropriate”. 

And then there’s documentarian Errol Morris, who’s made a career of depending on the oversharing of others. With his signature Interrotron camera setup, Morris locks eyes with his subjects through a process involving camera, mirrors and monitors. In the finished films, the effect of this sort of director-to-subject axis is that the subject seems to devote their attention directly to the audience. Morris occasionally appears as a disembodied voice, but his likeness has been removed from the “face-to-face” encounter with the subject. The viewer fills the resulting vacuum, as if we’re stepping into the conversation (much like relieving an exhausted listener in the above scenario).

cover art


Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Joyce McKinney

US DVD: 1 Nov 2011

One common question in the reception of Morris’s films is whether this process creates a more honest or ethical sort of communication when compared to more traditional observational or off-axis camera approaches. In essay “Direct Address, Ethical Imagination, and Errol Morris’s Interrotron”, Alex Gerbaz suggests that the results are mixed: “The Interrotron adds to the mediating effects of the screen while simultaneously creating the illusion that mediation between character and viewer is minimised.” (Film-Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 2)

I would argue that the illusion works both ways, and that Morris’s subjects might hesitate to participate so openly if they considered that the interpersonal conversation between themselves and the director would transform into a solo performance for a multitude of audience members. What feels private and comfortable on one side of the Interrotron could begin to feel exploitive when the finished product is a public spectacle.

These issues are particularly relevant in Tabloid, Morris’s film about the life and times of Joyce McKinney. Ex-beauty queen McKinney gained notoriety in the late ‘70s for assembling a team and traveling from the United States to London to abduct her “object of desire”, a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. That she was temporarily successful in her plot—holding Anderson captive in a Devonshire cottage and allegedly forcing him to perform sexual acts with her for three days straight—led to her arrest, trial, and most pertinently, celebrity status in the British tabloids. 

Tabloid presents the sensational details of the case mostly through McKinney’s account. Though in keeping with Morris’s standard directorial procedure, he does counterpoint her testimony with conflicting and/or complicating versions from supporting players and documents. The showiest of these counterpoints is the tabloid headlines that appear across the image of the interviews throughout the film. This is a technique Morris uses early and often, challenging McKinney’s introductory description of herself as an innocent young girl caught up in “a very special love story” with graphics that read: “LOVE IN CHAINS” and “THE MANACLED MORMON”.

On one hand, this text is historically accurate; quite literally ripped from the ‘70s headlines that chronicled McKinney’s adventures. On the other hand, the usage here exclaims the ironies and sensations of the story in a way that undercuts the integrity of the film and its more serious arguments and implications. This twoness defines the self-contradictory Tabloid—a film that fundamentally depends on McKinney’s star performance while simultaneously disavowing her credibility. In order to see why this might be a considered a disappointing departure for Morris, we could briefly review the higher points of his filmography.

Morris’s best films are the product of structural and aesthetic choices that progressively contribute to complexity of character and narrative. Even upon repeat viewings, films such as The Thin Blue Line (1988), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) manage to sneak up and surprise the viewer with a sense of intricate portraiture that uses to full advantage the complicated moral universes of the main players, and the revelations they lead to over time. In each case, the process of mediation between filmmaker and subject boils down to an inspired strategic match of character with form.

For example, The Thin Blue Line fully exploits the “trial analogy” of documentary film and its presentation of evidence in order to tell the story of a murdered Dallas police officer and the two men fingered for the crime. Morris uses expressionistic reenactments and conflicting eyewitness and legal testimony to alternately support and upend the interviews of his two primary subjects, one of whom (Dale Adams) has been convicted and sentenced for the crime and the other (David Harris), who identified Adams as the shooter. The Thin Blue Line demonstrates that reaching the truth of a situation such as this is anything but straightforward, and the progressive disclosure of evidence and conflict between testimonies leads to a climactic discovery of Adams’ innocence and Harris’s likely guilt. As a direct result of the film’s investigation, Adams’ conviction was overturned and he was eventually released from prison.

Mr. Death and The Fog of War also put history on trial, but in very different ways. Over the course of Mr. Death, Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. transforms from a self-taught expert and consultant on the subject of executions to a reviled Holocaust denier, whose reputation for finding humane ways to kill is revealed to be an outgrowth of the scarily timeless “banality of evil” that the strange man personifies. In The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara comments at length on his life, war, and the lessons he’s learned from the intersection of his life with war – specifically, his role as the architect of the Vietnam War. Morris draws these lessons out of his subject in a way that makes us consider the futility of the present exercise. How does one go about creating a guidebook for a reality as messy and unpredictable as combat?

McNamara is a figure who does not need to be mythologized, as his role within world history is inextricably part of America’s official story. But decades after his war, and shot during new wars, The Fog of War gives McNamara space to reflect on what the world lost and gained as a result of his decisions, which had global implications. The strength of the film is the comparative absence of indictment, which reinforces its theme of living with the consequences of actors/actions that needn’t heed rules. Any “lessons” generated from such a murky endeavor as war are destined to be revised with each new conflict and subject to the consciences of those involved, and in the end The Fog of War is above all a grand probing of conscience.

After that cycle through subjects as weighty as wrongful conviction, capital punishment, the Holocaust, and the War in Vietnam, Tabloid might be seen as an earned lark. Morris, having given us a lot of serious stuff, is also very good at exploring that which J. Hoberman of The Village Voice defines as “the freak-show fringe of American life”. In his review of Tabloid, Hoberman appears to see the film as a sort of vacation for Morris, who “dismounts his high horse” to tell a story in which “no moralizing is required”.

To my eyes, however, Tabloid is very much a case of Morris mounting and dismounting the high horse at will. Morris has in McKinney a treasure of a film subject. She and her tale are as bizarre, tawdry, and sad as the lives profiled in other recent stranger than fiction pieces like Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens’ Crazy Love (2007) and Harris Fishman’s Cat Dancers (2008). In these films, a delusional form of love has given way to violence, and much of the fascination in watching the stories unfold is the expectation that the characters will come to their senses and awaken to reality.

Yet McKinney seems to live so deeply within her own world of fantasy and paranoia, that nothing (and certainly not the process of reliving her greatest hits for the camera) is likely to shake her. When one looks for some positive purpose in retelling this story, there is no benefit for the subject, and a feeling sets in that the filmmaker is inviting the audience to laugh heartily at her expense.

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