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Tuesday 24 April 2012

Film Review: Tabloid

Errol Morris made what is probably my favourite movie of all time, Vernon, Florida. I saw it at precisely the right moment, with exactly the right people, to understand it completely and become enthralled for life. It is made up of a series of interviews with the residents of the titular Southern city, which initially drew Morris' interest because of the high number of insurance claims for amputation coming out of it. Nothing about amputation made it into the movie, just clips of people making observations that veer casually between inane and batshit crazy.

It's not for everyone. Morris' later work is more focused and linear, his tv show First Person being a fine example. On it, he drew exceptionally deep interviews out of a diverse and bizarre lineup of personalities, including Temple Grandin, leading expert on cattle pen design, a mob lawyer, a cryogenicist who may have personally decapitated his mother, a retired CIA spook, and the world's foremost expert on giant squid. The show should be for everyone, whether they like it or not.

So a new Errol Morris is big news, and I finally found a copy of his latest, Tabloid. The movie investigates the strange case of Joyce Kinney, a former beauty queen accused of kidnapping and raping her Mormon lover. The case was the subject of a tabloid frenzy, hence the title, but Morris follows McKinney up to the present day, through a trip to Korea and revelations involving her pet pitbull Booger. Don't watch it if you don't like being haunted by uncertainty.

Like Marwencol, which I reviewed a year ago, the film does an excellent job of deepening the weirdness precisely when you thought it had gone to the hilt. Through it all McKinney seems comparatively well-adjusted, and the dissonance between her persona and her actions make for juicy discussion with your watching partners. I was hoping that stylistically the movie would harken back to Vernon, Florida, but it is more like a particularly gratifying, lush episode of First Person. The use of pop-up text and stock footage is probably necessary given that the film is talking about events that took place over thirty years ago, but also makes the presentation seem slightly more formulaic. That criticism is only a niggle, however, since there's nothing formula about the convolutions of McKinney's life. Also, the insights about the Mormon church are particularly interesting at a time when a Mormon contender for the presidency of the United States is big in the news.

So if I'm still waiting for the next Vernon, Florida, I was thoroughly entertained by Tabloid. Eat it up, Morris fans, and if you haven't seen any of his work yet, you've got hours of incredible documentary ahead of you.

Special Bonus Recommendation: If you enjoyed Tabloid, you might also like Crazy Love, about the deranged relationship between Burt Pugach and Linda Riss! Riss continues to live with Pugach, even after he hired someone to throw lye in her face. Not an Errol Morris but also quite confounding, with similar themes.

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