Sunday, September 4, 2011

Love Conquers All (Tabloid and Jane Eyre)

In Tabloid, the new documentary from the greatest of contemporary documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris reveals that celebrity culture has infested itself in our society, making stars out of unremarkable individuals, handing out microphones instead of meds to the mentally unstable. Stop the presses. Since, approximately, A Face in the Crowd (1957), there have been a plethora of examinations on this topic in the realms of fiction and nonfiction alike: Quiz Show, Robert Redford's brilliant 1994 drama on the "21" game show scandal, remaining for me the most incisive. Tabloid offers nothing new beyond a story that many of us may not know or remember -- a story which, after 80-some-odd minutes, I couldn't fathom why Morris wasted his time telling.

On second thought, it's pretty clear: After pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), the criminal justice system (The Thin Blue Line), Holocaust denial (Dr. Death), Vietnam (The Fog of War), and Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), Morris wanted to tackle something more frivolous. He found frivolity du jour in Joyce McKinney, a beauty pageant queen who, in the 1970s, fell in love with a Mormon missionary, who fled to England with McKinney and a band of accomplices in hot pursuit. It was in the U.K. where she tracked down her would-be paramour, kidnapped him at gunpoint, then held him hostage for (in her words) "three days of fun, food, and sex" before he escaped again and she was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Juicy stuff, at least for a half-hour or so, when Morris's clever visuals (scandal sheet headlines blaring across the screen as his interviewee's reminisce) and breakneck editing keep things lively. McKinney herself is the primary subject, and for a while her loopy conviction stares down the unnerving gaze of Morris's notorious Interrotron to a draw.

Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that we are listening to a madwoman, and as McKinney prattles on endlessly, watching the movie starts to feel like being trapped at the edge of a dinner table with a companion whose clutches you can't escape. For squirm humor to work, it helps to have a normalizing presence to balance things out, and the surprisingly few accompanying interviewees that Morris offers -- a pair of sleazy British tabloid reporters, a Korean scientist out of The Manchurian Candidate -- provide no respite. Everyone (i.e., six interviewees total) is a loon in Tabloid, which may be Morris's idea of a universal indictment but instead magnifies his subject's own instability. "The man has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teeth marks still on it," one of the most memorable lines from Paul Attanasio's highly memorable Quiz Show script, applies to Joyce McKinney as well. Making a movie about her life is the kind of help she doesn't need.

It may just be that I'm the wrong audience for tales of obsessive love. Years of rejection and restraining orders tend to dull one's emotional responses, to where the novels of Jane Austen always drove me a little nuts, and I veered widely around the Bronte sisters, including Jane Eyre and all of its cinematic adaptations til now. (Their American counterpart, Edith Wharton, explored similar themes with a coiled anger and sharp thrust that was always more my speed.) As a non-reader of the book I found Cary Fukunaga's film mildly engaging, though after only a few weeks I can barely remember a single scene. His previous film, the overpraised Sin Nombre (2009), had a similar effect, illustrating the fine line between craftsmanship that's invisible and the kind that's forgettable.

What I recall most from Jane Eyre are the expressions of Mia Wasikowska, who has four or five more things going on across her face than Fukanaga manages for the entire movie. Faithful readers of this blog already know that I think Wasikowska is one of the best young actresses around, something that's been obvious since she burst out of the TV screen in season one of HBO's In Treatment. She makes a perfectly capable Jane, yet her more natural presence in In Treatment and The Kids Are All Right suggests that her strengths lie in contemporary portraits. She's as modern an actress as Keira Knightley and shows more range, yet Knightley's star turn in Pride & Prejudice had more impact because she had a director, Joe Wright, who developed his entire modernized approach to the material around her performance (to mostly successful results).

Wasikowska blends in to Jane Eyre when she should be standing out, and she has disappointingly little chemistry with Michael Fassbender, whose brooding, haunted Rochester -- while passable -- hasn't even half the magnetism that this terrific actor is capable of. Fassbender fared better with the prickly newcomer Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, whereas Wasikowska's best (if Platonic) pairing to date has been Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, who couldn't get anything going with Winona Ryder way back in Little Women, who bewitched Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible, who had previously, unsuccessfully rejected her for Michelle Pfeiffer in Scorsese's Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence. Matchmaking in movies may be even more unpredictable than in real life.


man in the iron mask said...

I thought Mr. Fukunaga was doing interesting things with the way he was using light in the movie, sort of as a symbol for conscience/principles and also as a way of introducing cinematic light (projector/monitor) to "reveal" the darkness behind that opening image.

In a way one might feel that it is the background (the shadows, the darkness, the light) that is actually guiding the plot and romance. I sort of liked that aspect.

Craig said...

Thanks for weighing in. That's an interesting point, and maybe I'd have noticed the light more in a theater than streaming on my TV. I just didn't find what that light was shining on to be terribly absorbing, though I certainly didn't hate the movie.

The disappearing red bag that you tweeted about (and discussed in your fine review), however: I'm pretty sure it's a continuity error. Sorry, that's the cynic in me....

man in the iron mask said...

I suspect, more than a continuity error, it is a result of problematic editing. That is because the Wikipedia plot summary of the novel (I haven't read the book) says - "She leaves her bundle of her possessions on the coach and has to sleep on the moor..."

As John Uskglass tweeted, "Jane Eyre (2011) is a gorgeous rendering of the Jane Eyre wikipedia page".

Jason Bellamy said...

You've written about two movies that I planned to write about back when I saw them ... but didn't. Mostly it was because of time. Although with Jane Eyre, I had the same problem you did: After just a week I had to remind myself I'd seen it. That said, I think your praise for Wasikowska is exactly right: "who has four or five more things going on across her face than Fukanaga manages for the entire movie." Well said!

As for Tabloid ...

It really does seem incomplete. I was going to write that the film felt like Errol Morris basement tapes: some really great stuff that deserves to see the light but that isn't enough to stand alone as a Morris picture. (The stuff at the end with the dogs was particularly unrewarding.)

One of the things that's interesting about Morris is how absolutely uninterested he is in the truth. How many other directors, for example, would interview McKinney without ever asking the most obvious question: when you ushered him into the car to take him to the love nest, did you have a gun with you? Not that the answer would have explained it, but from a journalistic standpoint it was an obvious question.

For me the most telling detail is that McKinney escaped the UK, but not without bringing back several suitcases full of clippings that, if discovered, could have thwarted her return to the US. She's an odd bird, to be sure. And Morris loves 'em like that.

Craig said...

"The Errol Morris Basement Tapes" is wonderfully put. "Tabloid" is visually striking, particularly for a documentary -- the movie looks great. And I enjoyed some of the cleverness, though Michael Moore had gone to the well many times with "Ozzie & Harriet" fantasy flashbacks before Errol ever got there.

I disagree that Morris isn't interested in truth. You don't make a movie that gets an innocent man off death row without some investment in that subject. His real theme has always been why people believe what they believe; he's all about process, and his best films are about that too. When you've got Robert McNamara in the interviewee's chair, pride and guilt and self-denial butt up against each other in compelling ways. When you've got Joyce McKinney -- a fantasist, that much is clear -- there needs to be a grounding in reality to offset her delusions, or at least provide context to them, and Morris doesn't offer that.

"The stuff at the end with the dogs was particularly unrewarding." Ah, yes: I began to wonder if Errol Morris made a bet with his old pal Werner Herzog over who could end his next movie with the weirdest coda. "Hey, Werner, I've got cloned puppy dogs. What have you got?" "Radioactive albino crocodiles." "Touche!"

Jason Bellamy said...

I disagree that Morris isn't interested in truth. You don't make a movie that gets an innocent man off death row without some investment in that subject. His real theme has always been why people believe what they believe; he's all about process, and his best films are about that too.

I'm not sure we're too far apart here.

Clearly, Morris has some interest in truth. But I think it's not as deep as his filmography might imply at a glance. The Thin Blue Line makes it seem as if Morris is a crusader for justice. And Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure might seem to come from the same place.

But while I think Morris has a curiosity about the truth that gets him to these stories, his films are not about "figuring it all out," so to speak, as much as his films often accomplish that. As you suggest, he's more fascinated by the various versions of the truth, the way people can look at the same evidence and come away with different interpretations of what happened -- either by honest means or otherwise.

Interestingly, since you mentioned Michael Moore, Moore's films are more driven by a fascination with exposing truth, which is totally ironic because Moore's style is maniuplative and loose with the facts.

Sam Juliano said...

JANE EYRE is actually my personal favorite film of 2011 thus far, ahead of TREE OF LIFE, POETRY and OF GODS AND MEN. But I know full well this is not everyone's cup of tea and respect your position.

I do think that Dario Marianelli's ravishing score is the best in that category this year.

Excellent post.

Craig said...

Nice to hear from you, Sam. I haven't seen "Poetry" or "Of Gods and Men, though "The Tree of Life" is, for me, the movie of the year. Following that, so far, would be the mythic "Drive" (which I have a hunch you may not like) and "Certified Copy," which I know was technically released last year but I only just saw it in the Spring. I'm about to watch "13 Assassins" and hope to add another film to what has been a very short list.

Sam Juliano said...

Craig: I must say I loved 13 ASSASSINS and look forward to hearing your reaction. You may well be right about DRIVE, though the proof will be in the pudding in a few hours, as I have a 7:30 P.M. viewing lined up here. I will definitely be heading over to your lead piece afterwards to compare notes.