Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Old Grey Lady and the kidnapping blonde: Page One and Tabloid

What does the Old Grey Lady have in common with a kidnapping blonde? Andrew Rossi's excellent documentary Page One and Errol Morris' less successful Tabloid both explore the struggle to control increasingly fragmented narratives.

Amusingly and sometimes alarmingly, Rossi's portrait of The New York Times conveys just how insecure and embattled the prestige newspaper has become.  In 2010, as Wikileaks releases to Youtube damning footage of American soldiers shooting innocent Iraqis from their helicopters, the editors at the Times wonder how to respond. They worry over the fact that Julian Assange and Wikileaks did not even consult with the major news outlets, and one senses a defensive posture in the prestigious newspaper.  Weren't the The Times writers the original rowdy troublemakers back in the 70s when their story of the Pentagon Papers caused Nixon to want to persecute them?  Isn't the Times supposed to be the one who shakes up the US government with its exposes, not bloggers and hackers? Even as Rossi acknowledges the need for old-fashioned journalistic skills for a functioning democracy, good war coverage, and so on, a portrait emerges in Page One of a newspaper angling to retain relevance amidst all of the abrupt changes in technology that allows people new ways to release information. The documentary moves from early scenes in which the Times is blindsided by Wikileaks, budget cuts, and layoffs to a later more conventionally flattering narrative in which David Carr, now in control, writes a brilliant expose about the sexual and financial corruption of the Tribune newspapers. In spite of all of the initial anxieties, the film ends with a comforting portrait of the journalist as hero.

Meanwhile, in Tabloid, Errol Morris tells the lurid 70's story of Joyce McKinney and her sort-of kidnapping and rape of her former Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson who has dumped her to become a missionary in England. In her 20's at the time, Joyce finds that her fiance has abruptly disappeared from her life due to--it appears--the machinations of the Mormon Church. She hires a private detective to figure out that he's in England.  Then she arranges to steal him away to a cottage in Devon where she manacles him to a bed and repeatedly has sex with him to deprogram him from the church's clutches.  Her strategy works for awhile, until she gets arrested for kidnapping.  Joyce then leaks her point of view to the British Press (her story of innocent true love temporarily triumphing) which creates an international media sensation.  She becomes an instant celebrity, hobnobbing with Keith Moon of The Who and overshadowing movie stars at film premieres.  

So far, so juicy.  Errol Morris perhaps overly relishes reconstructing this story's attendant tabloid frenzy, but there are fissures and problems. Instead of just letting Joyce and other related figures talk in interviews before the camera, Morris also inserts cheesy Michael Moore-ish footage of 1950s fantasy wives, crude cartoons of Mormons becoming Gods, and imprisoned women weeping in B-movies to illustrate Tabloid's increasingly competing versions of events.  The ironic footage mocks what's being told, flattering the viewer who can now laugh at laugh at Joyce's romanticism and Mormon religious dogma. I was disappointed by Morris' tactic because the mockery makes the movie too easy for the viewer.  His first brilliant 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven has every opportunity to make fun of the bizarre owners who mourn their lost pets, but he keeps any editorial angle muted.  The film's lack of an attitude toward its material greatly complicates our responses to the pet owners. By doing this, the movie weirdly shifts from lampooning goofballs to considering universal questions about death and loss.

Ultimately in Tabloid, the British tabloids such as the Daily Mirror dig up a story of Joyce's former life as a kind of call girl in California who has posed for many cheap porn magazines and used ads in the newspapers to sell fantasies of domination.  Morris is careful to never fully assert that these claims are true.  Since Joyce is still trying to maintain her image as an innocent woman seeking to realize her dream of love for Kirk, this lurid call girl business does not suit her agenda at all, so she goes into seclusion, and even today she's suing Morris for portraying this scurrilous aspect of her story.

So, what one finds writ large in Page One also appears in micro in Tabloid: a struggle for control over the narration. Recently, Joyce has snuck into various premieres of the movie, waited until it ended, and then hopped out in front of the audience to cry out "I'm Joyce McKinney!"  She then gives a speech denouncing the movie and once again attempts to impose her side of the story on the audience. Given her penchant for intrigue, Joyce actually has much in common with the newspapers she denounces.  As a trickster figure, she likes to adopt different identities, perhaps to help generate better copy later? When running from English bail, she dressed up as a deaf mute and then later as an Indian in makeup. As a woman researching the Mormon church, she wore a wig.  As a call girl, she catered to male fantasies as a former Miss America.  As a woman investigated by Scotland Yard, she would try to pass as an innocent romantic just trying to get her true love. Also, she likes to use a hidden microphone to ferret out information about the Mormon Church.  But she doesn't seem to realize that the media can exploit her far more than she can manipulate it, just as Errol Morris uses her story to create intriguing narrative gaps in his documentary.

Both movies leave behind lots of questions. Are we to believe Joyce or The Daily Mirror?  How much is Morris' portrait of Joyce a product of her own deliberate media construction? And how much does Joyce's struggle to maintain her reputation parallel that of the editors doing the same for the beleaguered New York Times?  The more they assert a sense of control, the more circumstances find ways to undermine them.

2 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

...Morris also inserts cheesy Michael Moore-ish footage of 1950s fantasy wives, crude cartoons of Mormons becoming Gods, and imprisoned women weeping in B-movies...

Historian isn't one of my stronger roles as a movie fanatic. Still, I think Moore actually ripped off Morris. This kind of B-movie insert footage can be found in, off the top of my head, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line (at least in the drive-in recollection, maybe more) and, I think, A Brief History of Time (although I'm blanking on specifics). Probably more. That out of the way ...

What's most interesting about Tabloid is how uninterested in the truth Morris seems to be. I mean, he's interested to a point. But building off of the theme of Standard Operating Procedure (and TBL, for that matter), he's more interested in the varying perspectives of the same event (as opposed to sorting them out to give us one clear Truth). It's telling, for example, that there are certain questions he never seems to ask, like, "Did you use a gun when coaxing your Mormon lover into a car? Yes or no?"

Joyce is a fascinating batshit-insane character, but the film loses momentum as it drifts from the scandal. The most telling episode about Joyce: who else would wear a disguise to flee the country and bring along suitcases full of clippings that would implicate her? Well, Joyce would. She's interested in attention above all else (as her recent antics make clear).

As for Page One: I think the point of the Times' insecurity about Wikileaks is that they aren't needed anymore, and they know it. Yes, they're supposed to be the one who shakes things up, but free media/Internet has given others the opportunity to go around them -- not to mention that we can't be entirely sure that Wikileaks gets all of its materials legally, which the Times would strive for (at least officially). Man, I feel for newspaper folks: more competition than ever, more demand for their time than ever (blogs, tweets and a story for the paper on the same day, over and over again) ... worse pay than ever. Sad.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jason.

I noticed that Craig dismissed Joyce as crazy, but one could make the claim that she has a talent for gaining tabloid attention. Once she found that she had it in England, then she began to turn her life into a show that the public would want to buy. I wonder how conscious she is of her need for attention. I agree with you about the movie losing interest, especially once the narrative shifts to the dog cloning business. The film becomes decidedly less interesting when Morris turns to strictly mocking Joyce later on. She needs to have some compelling humanity for the film to work.

Also, you point out the sadness of contemporary journalism in regards to Page, but, then again, the reporters do work at the Times, and regardless of the letters requesting that they retire early, they still have dream jobs. I enjoyed watching how they get their information, the use of those headphones, the long amounts of time that David Carr appears to have to brood on a story. I liked hearing about the Times effect, the importance of having a large institution that can fend off lawsuits, etc. The film had the odd effect of making me happy to be a blogger as well as respectful of the key differences between blogging and journalism.