Last night the second floor of CAA played host to a group of Brandeis University alum who had come to salute the university’s expanding film studies program. On tap, along with the wine, champagne and tuna tartar, was a preview screening of Errol Morris’s latest documentary film “Tabloid,” about a 1970s sex-scandal —“Sex in Chains” as it was touted in the London tabloids—involving a beauty-queen, a Mormon, and eventually, five Korean-cloned pitbulls.
The daring non-fiction filmmaker, best known for his Oscar-winning portrait of U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara in “The Fog Of War” appeared as a favor to Brandeis University president Fred Lawrence (ostensibly in town to raise the profile and likely needed funds for the new program). The event drew a handful of industry vets, including “Friends” creator Marta Kauffman, film and television producer Marshall Herskovitz (“Thirtysomething”, “Love and Other Drugs”), Janet Kurtzman Lonner (sister of CAA agent Rick Kurtzman and wife of former William Morris agent David Lonner) and producer Dan Adler.
Lawrence opened with remarks comparing Hollywood’s daring quest for “creative art and truth” to Brandeis’s academic mission. The university, which he depicted as a more progressive version of Harvard, was one of the first campuses in the country not to discriminate on the basis of race or religion.
“We got the American dream before America really got it,” he said.
Which brought him to Hollywood, that other bastion of the American dream, and, apparently, close ideological cousin of Brandeis. In fact the connection between Hollywood and Brandeis has deep roots: former studio mogul Lew Wasserman established a scholarship fund there, and legendary producer Sam Spiegel (“On the Waterfront”, “Lawrence of Arabia”) created a film fund in his name.
Morris, who is not a Brandeis alum but whom Lawrence said he considers “part of the family” introduced his latest doc as an “insane movie” that questions how we construct truth from reportage.
The film focuses on an ancient tabloid sensation in which a former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney, was accused in the British press of kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend and raping him. But all is not as it seems, and the genius of Morris’s filmmaking technique is that he offers simultaneous but conflicting accounts of the story. In one thread, a virginal beauty queen tries to wrest the man she loves from the grip of a cult; in the tabloid version, a sex-crazed maniac assaults a pious man.
“I’ve always been interested in tabloid stories,” Morris told the crowd during an informal Q-and-A following the screening. But this one was especially compelling: “This is a two-part story: one about dog cloning, the other about a manacled Mormon. The combination of ‘A’ and ‘B’ was irresistible,” he said.
Morris compared his interest in the story to that of a film he made about a Holocaust-denying, electric-chair repairman. On their own, they’re not so interesting, he said, but together? Enrapturing.
Addressing questions about his leading lady’s sanity—McKinney is at once eccentric and effervescent, a real ‘character’ whose bizarrely endearing personality adds incomparably to the film’s entertainment value—Morris said, “I love Joyce – what’s not to love? She’s truly crazy.”
As to the veracity of her story? “I don’t know where the truth lies or if truth has any application in the story,” he said.
One of Morris’s apparent gifts is his ability to highlight the vagaries of human behavior, the point at which the distinction between truth and fiction is never clear. He is able to extract such blustering candor from his subjects—none of whom are actors – so much so, that their “real” feels more like a performance.
“I’m fond of saying in this town that the only difference between real people and SAG actors is that real people can act,” Morris quipped. As a director, he said, “My job is to elicit performance.”
It is in that kind of set-up staging that Morris blurs the line between what we think we know and what we may actually know. Truth and fiction are entirely subjective, he seems to be saying. Especially when it comes to the media.
“It’s not that truth doesn’t exist,” he explained. “It’s that we prefer not to know it.”