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.
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.
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.
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