Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Gentle Reminder from Errol Morris


 By K Gronsbell

Errol Morris is the one of the most adept one-trick ponies in American film. His 2011 endeavor, Tabloid, explores America's sensationalist interests. Studying the 70's "Mormon sex in chains" case and its anachronistically bubbly star player, Joyce McKinney, Tabloid is exactly what a casual Morrisphile would expect: portrait-style talking heads with lighting that would make Henry Fuseli jealous, editing beats for laughs and gasps at the audacity of the interviewees, and a quaint manipulation of text that pops up to highlight particularly absurd ideas and events in the spoken story - in a terribly consumable newspaper font.

The conventions undoubtedly work. Tabloid gleaned a few laughs from this hardened cinéaste, especially during a segment towards the end of the film. A reporter, in a painfully traditional medium shot, had a few too many seconds of screen time. To incorporate his vocal information without jumping to another batch of B-roll, Morris racks focus. The subject and his school-picture backdrop cloth were out of focus for less than two seconds; Morris' ability to manipulate the audience is undeniable. The simplest narrative "error" and the viewer is reminded to pay attention, even if the editing has slowed and downloadable typewriter strike foley noises have ceased. This moment is not an amateur's attempt at anything; it is the mark of a seasoned director who understands the public's inability to commit. Let us not forget Morris' foray into commercials in the 2000s and understand that Tabloid is a child of that period. It is intentionally gaudy in content and construction, with a cast of jesters the audience is forced to identify with and support. Morris is serving exactly what he knows Americans want: little nuggets of recycled scandal, that are prepared to seem just absurd enough to enjoy but not disturbing enough to realize that there were allegation of rape, bondage and imprisonment.

Tabloid is Morris' proof that he still earns his reputation. It is camp enough for the elite to engage in metacommentary, but simple enough for the person who wandered in from Horrible Bosses to get a chuckle or two. Morris created a demon that is indicative of the state of American cinema: a beast with one very fluffy head and one with a mouthful of pointed teeth.

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