SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day Six

They uncover a tale worthy of Sophocles in which love, hatred, and politics are inextricably intertwined.

Today we have two documentaries addressing different aspects of the news media and two narrative features that look at human relationships through the mirrors of science fiction and war.
Prior to viewing Tabloid, Errol Morris’ new documentary, I had never heard of Joyce McKinney, but for a brief period in the 1970s she was well known in Great Britain thanks to tabloid coverage of what became known as the case of the manacled Mormon. It’s easy to see why the tabloids jumped all over this story; McKinney was an American beauty queen who believed, when her Mormon boyfriend (Kirk Anderson) left the country to do his mission, that he had been kidnapped by a mind-control cult. She tracked him down in England with the aid of a private detective and then kidnapped and held him prisoner (tied up, not chained, according to her) in a rural cottage where they engaged in repeated sexual relations. McKinney was arrested but skipped bail and returned to the U.S., selling her story to the Daily Express for £40,000. The Daily Mail also got in on the game with an investigation that uncovered a stash of sexually explicit photos of McKinney (so they say—the photos seem to have mysteriously disappeared). After a long period out of the spotlight, McKinney resurfaced in the public eye when she became the first person to have her dog cloned.
McKinney is the ideal subject for exploitation. Interviewed for this film at age 61, she seems to have no brakes on her mouth and no ability to see beyond her own view of any subject. She has a gift for colorful turns of phrase (at one point saying, "I loved Kirk so much I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose,") but seems to be a particularly unreliable witness. Of course, getting to the bottom of any particular disputed event is not a concern of this film. If McKinney has no shame, neither do the two tabloid journalists, Peter Tory and Kent Gavin, who never question the morality of their profession. Morris employs various tricks (animations, jump-cut interviews) and keeps his story moving, but it still feels overly long and most of the laughs come from Morris encouraging viewers to feel superior to McKinney. This will come easily to most fans of indie docs, but it’s an ugly and ultimately antisocial attitude to cultivate.
If you long for the good old days when the dead tree media ruled the earth, you’ll love Andrew Rossi’s Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. It doesn’t live up to the premise of its title but the opening images of newspapers rolling off the presses will give a thrill to anyone old enough to remember similar scenes in black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s. The film’s publicity makes much of gaining "unprecedented access" to the paper’s inner workings but delivers not much more than a conventional talking heads documentary featuring mostly white men holding meetings, doing interviews by phone, and defending the importance of traditional newspapers.
David Carr is the star of the picture and he loves the spotlight, playing the grizzled old veteran whose street cred stems from his years as a former drug addict who has done time in jail. Of course now that he’s an insider with a prestigious gig he defends his employer with the ferocity of a bulldog. Carr’s ability to successfully establish himself as a brand (something he may have picked up while working the entertainment beat) is never examined, nor are any other significant issues; instead the various talking heads get to have their say and then the film moves on.
The focus of Page One is on media reporting (could Rossi have picked a more navel-gazing subject?) and there are the expected discussions about competition from new media, ethical breaches in the traditional media, budget shortfalls, and staff cutbacks. The end result is glossy and entertaining, but also shallow and self-congratulatory. It could be useful in college journalism classes (I bet the students would tear it to shreds) and may bring a tear or two to the eyes of those old enough to have experienced the Times’ glory days (if you were paying attention when the Pentagon Papers were published you may well be in that category).
In one sense, however, Page One is either a serious slur on the Times or a reflection of a reality that points out one more way in which the paper is stuck in the past. The only non-white person given much screen time is the disgraced reporter Jayson Blair, and the only female reporter featured is the disgraced Judith Miller (we do hear from several female editors in talking head interviews, but the men get all the action). Is this a true reflection of the Times newsroom or simply a bias on Rossi’s part? Similarly, in the section on layoffs, they seem to fall disproportionately on women; is this true (if so, Rossi should have cited some numbers) or were women featured in this segment because they were more willing to emote on camera?
South by Southwest does a special "sneak screening" each year, in which you line up outside the theatre not knowing what you will see once inside. It’s the purest of all film-going experiences because you have no expectations until the lights go down and the projection starts. The surprise film this year was Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill and starring Brit Marling. The film played at Sundance where it reportedly split audiences right down the middle—they either loved it or hated it. I have to confess that I’m closer to the latter camp than the former; I didn’t hate Another Earth so much as I found it to have begun with a fascinating sci fi premise only to produce, ultimately, a conventional relationship film.
The premise is that there is a second earth that is a duplicate of ours. On the night that this is discovered, science whiz Rhoda Williams (Marling) causes a serious traffic accident that results in two deaths and sends her to prison. After release she tracks down John Burroughs (William Mapother), whose wife and child were killed in the accident, intending to apologize but then chickening out and pretending to be a representative from a house-cleaning service. It’s an inspired improvisation because he’s apparently been drinking nonstop since the accident and his house is practically buried in empty bottles and other trash.
Because Rhoda was a juvenile at the time of the accident John doesn’t know who she is and, despite several warning signs, never become suspicious enough to question the story she gives him. At the same time Rhoda enters a contest to be a passenger on the first mission to Earth 2, which leads to a fairly good "aha" moment near the end of the film, although not one I found to be worth sitting through the rest of the movie to get to.
This is basically a two-person show; there are other roles (Rhoda’s family, various townspeople, and so on) but none of them are developed. In fact, much of the script feels perfunctory, as if the writers (Marling and Cahill) were concerned entirely with mechanics ("we’ve got to have the parents express concern here," or "let’s give Rhoda a mystical co-worker,") and not at all with psychological plausibility or narrative coherence. Often they simply state a characteristic and move on. For instance, they seem to have given far more thought to Rhoda’s various hairstyles than to how her determination to have a scientific career would be reflected in her behavior (note to scriptwriters: saying someone has been admitted to MIT is not sufficient character development). Marling is a beautiful and gifted actress (with two films at Sundance this year—the other was Sound of My Voice), so I’m looking forward to seeing her in better movies in the future.
Two years ago, right here in St. Louis, I saw The Orange Girls’ production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, which is aptly titled because at the end I felt as if I had passed through a wall of flames and come out on the other side wiser, but also a bit charred by the experience. This feeling is preserved in the film Incendies, directed by Denis Villeneuve, which is a re-imagination rather than a strict adaptation of the play. The basic set-up is the same: Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are Canadian siblings whose mother has died unexpectedly. Called into a notary’s (Remy Girard) office to hear her will, they find themselves tasked with a puzzling mission: to deliver letters to their father (who they believe to be dead) and their brother (who they did not know existed).
Their efforts to execute these terms take them back to their mother’s homeland, a war-torn Middle Eastern country (Mouawad is Lebanese but the identity of the country in question is deliberately left ambiguous) on a sort of dual hero’s journey punctuated with flashback segments of their mother (Lubna Azabal) as a young woman. They uncover a tale worthy of Sophocles in which love, hatred, and politics are inextricably intertwined. Watching Incendies is a long, hard, and emotionally draining experience but one that richly rewards the time and effort invested. | Sarah Boslaugh

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