Documentaries were once the highest of highbrow affairs intended to enlighten and educate. Audiences tuned in to PBS after unwinding from a sordid wine and cheese party to see footage of wars in Algeria or profiles of nihilists. But this snootiest of genres of film has loosened up over the last few years. Documentaries have embraced their descendant, reality television, and serve us as modern day freak shows.
When our forefathers attended PT Barnum’s freak shows they were forced to have the Elephant Man and the bearded lady stare back at them when they gawked. Today audiences can watch all kind of fruitcakes from the safety of their living rooms.
Errol Morris, one of the masters of the craft of documentary filmmaking, previously mined the world of nutcases in Mr. Death. That 1999 movie showed off Fred Leuchter, a megalomaniac who was an engineer of execution devices, who later published a report that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. The movie exploited Leucthner’s desire for attention, but also provoked questions about death, murder, and capital punishment.
Morris’s latest documentary, Tabloid, also features a publicity hungry protagonist in Joyce McKinney. McKinney in the 1970s became a star of the British press when she was accused of kidnapping a Mormon love interest and keeping him in shackles for several days. She was arrested for this crime and when on bail managed to escape the continent by disguising herself as a deaf-mute. Thirty years later she found fame again when she funded the cloning of her beloved dog.
It is the type of story with insane twists and turns that deserves to be made into a movie. But I would feel more comfortable seeing an actress play this character rather than the real woman trying to rationalize the crazy things she is accused of doing. The movie frames itself with a comedic tone, so you can’t help but laugh when they edit the film so McKinney is caught making what seem to be contradictory statements. But you will feel a little guilty afterwards for doing it.
If the movie was trying to make a larger point I would be more forgiving of it showering attention on this woman. But as fas as I could tell Tabloid’s only reason for being is to serve as an entertainment. While it does drag at times, Tabloid does succeed thoroughly as an entertainment. But you know what else is entertaining? Watching a crack addict walk around in circles talking to himself.