tabloid

Review: Tabloid (2011)

The first thing I was drawn to in Errol Morris’s new movie, Tabloid were Joyce McKinney’s eyes. They darted to and fro, down at her hands, up towards the ceiling, left to right, side to side. But they never faced the camera — or Morris’s Interrotron — directly. Considering that McKinney had quite a story to tell, that of a former beauty queen so enraptured with a Mormon missionary who she flew to London to rescue (or, well, “rescue”) him from that life and convince him through violent means that they must be married, the immediate conclusion on my part was, well, she wasn’t to be trusted. Couldn’t be believed.

That was all well and good, since I knew the bare bones of the Joyce McKinney story. I knew how the FBI’s version contrasted sharply with hers, and how the official — or perhaps “official” — version created a tabloid sensation that, even after almost 35 years, exceeds hyperbole. The UK Fleet Streeters, their dirty laundry credentials aired to full putrid effect throughout the month of July thanks to the never-ending phone-hacking scandal, were well in their element with McKinney, who was arrested and accused of kidnapping her Mormon man Kirk Anderson at gunpoint, squirreling him away to a Yorkshire abode, and raping him repeatedly for three days straight.

But then the camera left McKinney, who is now sixtyish and still a narcissist, to fixate attention on a younger man — raised a Mormon but now removed from the religion — though somehow expert enough to provide color commentary on its supposed cultish activity. And once I realized the younger man, too, did not face the Interrotron and Morris directly, Tabloid lost me. It’s one thing to cast an eye on your supposed subject and make him or her look wholly unreliable. That’s what documentaries do. But when the same techniques for doing so fall down in the face of some outside expert, there’s a serious problem at work.

Unfortunately, once the illusion of narrative coherence broke apart, the reality of how Morris failed in his efforts set in. If tabloid culture and its lurid taste for new content was so important, why did he only speak to two such types? There’s the capable but culpable reporter from The Daily Express, whose claim to fame was being taken in by McKinney’s not-exactly-truthful tale of pious living on the run after she and her accomplice Keith May (who died in 2004) jumped bail and fled London for America. His descendant probably got axed along with News of the World last week. Then there was the more sleazy photographer tasked with finding past dirt on Joyce in the form of bondage photos, among other pictorial delights, his tongue almost involuntarily going to his lips as he recalled the whole exercise.

But what of the larger culture of tabloidism — just eight years removed from Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of NotW and its sister daily paper The Sun? What prompted the relentless pressure for arid scoops like what McKinney seemed to offer with Sex ‘n Chains? Why were the UK public so riveted by the story? Tabloid certainly wasn’t about to tell us. There was also an easily missed note in the credits that McKinney’s old boyfriend — the not-quite-innocent provider of the photos that splashed across the Mirror‘s pages for days on end — “could not be located.” Well, why not? Based on the scant number of people Morris talked to — at least compared to his earlier, more masterful investigative documentaries — it’s hard to shake the idea he didn’t really try very hard, helped by the fact that many of the other principals were dead (like May) or clearly unavailable (like Anderson).

McKinney may be pathologically self-absorbed, or something more complicated, but Tabloid doesn’t really care about her, other than to subject her to the mockery of the audience. There is little in the way of empathy. Worse, there’s a rather nasty undercurrent of misogyny, aided by the fact that McKinney is the only representative of her sex. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the current fallen Queen of UK tabloidism is Rebekah Brooks, and when the subject of female-to-male rape has only men to rebut it. I was also discomfited by the notion of all these men ganging up on Joyce in a manner not unlike the fictional Lisbeth Salander, whom Stieg Larsson depicts as the anti-beneficiary of a terrible tabloid campaign. Because hey — to be goth and bisexual and weird is to be splashed across the pages as a triple murder suspect and subjected to a punishing smear campaign that can only be resolved through the cathartic trial that brings the Millennium Trilogy to a close.

McKinney’s catharsis, on the other hand, never really arrived. She found refuge in her home state of North Carolina, still pining — or obsessing — over Kirk, but now so devoted to her dogs that the act of cloning them brought her back into the news cycle in 2008. Tabloid doesn’t really indicate what Joyce McKinney is like now, though it certainly judges her, mocks her, and paints her as a cartoon of ridicule. Morris, I suspect, would say that’s the point. Because tabloids do the same thing. But as we’re all finding out this month, there are limits to what behavior can be tolerated. Even sleaze has a ceiling. All Morris has done by engaging with this in the shoddy manner he has is to reveal uncomfortable truths about himself, most notably that he, too, counts among the man som hattar kvinnor.

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Standard Operating Procedure

It seems particularly fitting to remark upon Errol Morris’s latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, as Armond White offers yet another hysterical fulmination about how online culture is apparently destroying exegesis, ranting in particular about “the shame of middle-class and middlebrow conformity that critics follow each other when praising movies that disrespect religion, rail about the current administration or feed into a sense of nihilism that only people privileged with condos and professional can tenure.”

This colorful sentiment is, to say the least, a disingenuous generalization. For Morris’s documentary (and the accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch) would seem to suggest that one cannot approach an important subject like Abu Ghraib without a sense of outrage. That no matter how rational one is in investigating the events behind this nightmarish aperçu into America’s dark underbelly, journalist, filmmaker, and audience member alike must shout to the high ethical heavens. But is it really an act of conformity — class-driven, no less — to be appalled by what is revealed in the photographs? Is it conformist to speculate upon why Sabrina Harman offered a thumbs-up signal or whether or not Lynndie England was coerced by Charles Graner into holding a dog leash?

An innate sense of inquiry cannot be called conformist if it involves an independent series of perceptions that involve grasping some aspect of the truth, subject to change upon additional thought and information. And yet the main problem with Morris’s fascinating new film is that, with the ancillary and rather fixed reenactments photographed by Robert Richardson, it is possible that Morris may be holding the viewer’s hand too much, urging her to care when the interviews alone offer enough unknowns and the horrific glimpses into a soldier’s dead eyes four years later are enough to make one uncomfortable.

In watching these soldiers, I couldn’t help but consider the scene in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in which barber Abraham Bomba works in his shop, reproducing the precise grooming moves he employed while cutting the hair of victims about to be gassed in Treblinka. It is an eerie echo from the past that cannot altogether be shaken off in the present. And in my painful determination to understand, however limited, why these soldiers had done what they did and how the Abu Ghraib experience had shaken them, I wanted to know more about how the idea of getting used to anything — even the rough interrogation and humiliation of prisoners — was carried back to the homeland. This may not be an entirely fair request of Morris. His film is, as he contends in the press notes, an investigation into the Abu Ghraib photographs. But if, as Susan Sontag observed, “the photographs are us,” is it entirely unreasonable to ask the investigator to venture further?

It isn’t mentioned in the film, but Javal Davis, who comes across as a smooth, free-wheeling raconteur, is revealed, in Gourevitch’s book, to be “in sales. The career path that I have now, you know — comfortable. I deal with people on the regular basis. I’m not handling anybody’s problems. I’m not dealing with anything violent. So I’m business to business, all personal, ‘How you doing? I’m Javal Davis. Nice to meet you.’ Everybody’s happy. I like that. Sales. I’m a salesman.” And because Morris has flown out Davis, along with all the other soldiers, to his Cambridge headquarters to conduct these interviews, we do not see these soldiers in their current habitat. For all we know, Davis could have viewed his trip to Cambridge as a business trip. Business to business. And he could have adjusted accordingly.

It’s possible that Richardson’s visuals serve as a device similar to Comte de Lautréamont’s unusual narrator. In Maldoror, Lautréamont offered a unique device in which the narrator often parodies feelings by willfully distorting or rethinking the sordid events that are presented. Likewise, by illustrating what his interviews are telling us through these visual reenactments, this may be Morris’s heavy-handed help to us that we must rethink our own thoughts and feelings concerning these photographs. Or perhaps it’s more visceral. As I learned in an interview I conducted with Morris this week, outrage was also involved in these reenactments.

The outrage is conveyed as a prisoner is described having his eyebrows shaved off, with Morris including a close-up of a razor deracinating a tuft of hair. Morris likewise dramatizes a dog that terrorizes another prisoner. But Morris has the dog menacing the prisoner in slow-motion, with a melodramatic sound mix depicting the dog’s bottom jaw snapping shut like a steel trap.

Given the intriguing ambiguities unearthed during the interviews, this seemed to me to spoon-feed the audience too much. And I wasn’t alone. In an essay for Artforum, Paul Arthur took umbrage with these visuals, observing:

Their style, however, belongs to a film genre that provides titillation through horror. To employ this rhetoric in a documentary about actual horror is obscene, yielding familiar aesthetic thrills as a substitute for specificity of meaning. We aren’t prompted to contemplate the Iraq occupation’s signature scandal as the product of a mercenary chain of executive decisions, cultural attitudes, venalities, and personal pathologies; we are, as it were, let off the hook. It’s only a movie.

If a generic sense of horror is what is required to get through to the average moviegoer, then I cannot quibble as strenuously as Arthur does (and perhaps White will). But if a complex issue requires complex consideration, then any reenactment that will help a viewer construct a “map of reality” must not dictate too much. It is reasonable to accept the shaved eyebrow, but the dog goes over the top.

Likewise, in the book, Gourevitch maintains a level-headed, mostly objective tone for almost 160 pages before writing:

There is a constant temptation, when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it. This temptation is greatest when the history is fresh and deals with crises that are ongoing — crises that mold our understanding of our world and ourselves. Surely, if you have come this far in this sordid tale, you must crave some relief, some release, from the relentless, claustrophobic annihilation of the dungeon: a clear and cleansing note of sanity, an interlude of avenging justice or an eruption of decency, the entry of a hero. But surely you don’t want to be deceived. There is no such solace or sanctuary in this story.

Gourevitch then launches into a grand attack on what the Abu Ghraib atrocities say about America, pointing to the famous precedent of treating enemy prisoners well set by George Washington and fulminating against the Bush Administration. Not even a journalist as dutiful as Gourevitch can look at the photos and the complicit involvement of these bad apples without exploding.

Others will likely perceive this film to be mostly about the visuals atop the visuals, the analysis atop the analysis, the meta within the meta. But the real “standard operating procedure” explored in this film isn’t so much the pedestrian issue of how war caused the lines of basic human decency to become fuzzy, but the manner in which a great filmmaker has partially abandoned his subtleties to get Americans hopping mad. The faults lie not in the filmmakers and not, as White suggests, the critics. They’re doing their best to continue the dialogue, but their efforts have increasingly fallen upon deaf ears. For Abu Ghraib does not entertain. And neither does moral outrage.

(To listen to my podcast interview with Errol Morris, go here.)