Doc Talk: When Is It Okay to Laugh at a Real Person?

Doc Talk: When Is It Okay to Laugh at a Real Person?

Jul 13, 2011

tabloid joyce mckinney

Tabloid, the latest documentary from Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line; The Fog of War) has a little problem. The main subject of the film has been showing up at advance screenings nationwide -- most recently at an L.A. event -- to challenge its validity. Okay, so she can join Q-Tip, the U.S. energy lobby, anyone who’s debunked something in a Michael Moore movie, climate change deniers and everyone else who has argued against any work of nonfiction ever.

But Joyce McKinney, whose biographical tale of going from beauty queen to alleged kidnapper and rapist is told in the doc, brings up a less recognized issue. In addition to rejecting the film’s truth, she’s also scolding audiences for laughing at her. This part of her continued screening-crashing tour (written up in the New York Times before this past weekend’s L.A. incident), hasn’t been addressed nearly enough. Yet I for one haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since witnessing her first surprise appearance at DOC NYC last November (there's video of that one). 

Is it in fact wrong to laugh at her? The ethical concern at the base of this question is perhaps whether or not Morris sets her up for ridicule or if she does this to herself by her own statements and actions. Looking back on the filmmaker’s career, especially his earlier works, he has certainly walked the line of mockery due to his interest in eccentric personalities.

However, while he’s shown some minor contempt for subjects off screen, Morris hardly seems intent on making fun of anybody in and with his films. And although he clearly is amused by McKinney, he also shows a kind of respect for her, even if it borders comparison to how a circus ringleader respects the freaks, clowns and animals he presents to his audience.

anvil the story of anvilYou should see Tabloid in order to answer the question on laughter as it pertains to McKinney (the film hits theaters and video-on-demand this Friday), but how about other docs? I thought about the issue again recently after finally catching up with the very popular Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which I found underwhelming. My distaste was questioned on account of the film’s supposed hilarity. Didn’t I think it was funny, people asked, like a nonfiction version of This Is Spinal Tap?

Well, no, and I don’t actually see where that makes much sense. Sure, they’re both about heavy metal bands, and both involve someone named Rob(b) Reiner. But the fictional Spinal Tap movie is a satire and means to make much fun of its exaggerated characters. Anvil! is a real, hagiographic portrait of its subjects, directed by an ex-roadie for the band. Basically it’s the very kind of doc that This Is Spinal Tap is mocking.

Of course, Anvil! was marketed as being “hilarious,” via a giant, poster-plastering blurb from LA Weekly, and perhaps this is fine if none of the band members’ feelings are hurt by our laughter -- their newfound success thanks to the film surely waters down any pain, regardless. The case of benefit outweighing the detriment also applies to people on reality TV (or “docu-series,” as they’re being rebranded as these days) that are paid well for being mocked on a weekly basis.

One fine distinction for documentary has always been the way it differs from fiction with regards to both comedy and tragedy. Just as a disaster in a nonfiction film is not thrilling the way it is in an action movie, someone getting hurt in a doc is not as funny as it might be in a slapstick film. Or, it shouldn’t be. Of course, there are the Jackass movies, all technically documentary and still appropriate to laugh during because the subjects are both consenting to the pain and often stage their dangerous stunts in a slapstick manner.

When I saw Family Instinct at Silverdocs, however, the crowd laughed when a man in the film accidentally slipped on ice and fell. That film’s director, Andris Guaja, noted during a Q&A. during the fest that his subjects have seen the finished product and were regularly laughing at themselves. So perhaps a little real-life slapstick is fine since it’s not a long term hurt. And while Guaja might still be guilty of sensationalistic exploitation of his own film’s clowns and freaks, ultimately it might be up to the subjects themselves to call out their own suffering.

grey gardens

I’m reminded of Grey Gardens, which Albert Maysles is still defending during ethics panels as non-exploitative because the Beales watched the film and loved it, and Little Edie event went so far as to write (unpublished) letters to newspapers saying as much. If critics projected their own disgust with the mother-daughter duo or if audiences chuckle at anything from their quirks to their squalor it’s their own issue.

Long ago, early documentaries were more apparent in their motivations as films blatantly made fun of peculiar others, especially foreigners, with voice-over narrators calling attention to their uncivilized differences. Some might argue that the Beales are ignorantly abused through a comparably exoticizing gaze.

And what of other filters? The recently released Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is indeed a hilarious movie, yet at times it can seem like O’Brien’s insults to those around him are taken as hurtful rather than innocent jabs. But comedians and talk show hosts regularly make fun of real people in the news and such. If they can do it, why not filmmakers -- or must they be filtered through a separate documentarian, a la the cases of both Sacha Baron Cohen and Bill Maher, who both had Larry Charles helm their respective, comedic docs?

In my interview with Project Nim director James Marsh, he addresses the controversial practice of making fun of your subject, which he admits to doing in his early days. He says it’s like having an inside joke with your audience, but the problem to him seems more about what happens to the truth than what happens to the subjects’ feelings. Occasionally, such as with the uproarious and under-seen North Korea expose The Red Chapel, the in-joke and the truth lives in harmony. But this is rare (Borat and Exit Through the Gift Shop are other examples).



With Tabloid, Morris has no apparent in-joke with us, but the film is now coming across as more for the viewer’s benefit than the subject’s. Even if McKinney also seems intent on using her injection of controversy as a pursuit of attention, an extra level of fame not sufficiently produced through the film itself (she’s hurting herself more than helping). Tabloid is in a way a tabloid itself, but even if it functions as a window to stare and laugh at its subject, it’s really just the window. And of course we now know that a tabloid can do a whole lot worse.


New Releases

Whether it’s okay or not to laugh at Joyce McKinney, or even find her scandal-ridden life entertaining, Tabloid is highly recommended this week for the debate alone. It’s a lighter affair for Morris compared to his last two docs (Oscar winner The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure), one I honestly didn’t care enough for last fall to endorse in my DOC NYC preview. I may later change my mind again about recommending it. It’s that kind of film, which should make you curious enough.

sarah palinAlso opening this week is the Sarah Palin doc The Undefeated.  I haven’t seen it so can’t say much critically, but it is an interesting film to consider for the topic above given that many of us are used to seeing the former vice president candidate through comic filters and other ridiculing media (though she unintentionally elicits laughs on her own at times). But is hagiographic filtering inversely just as problematic?

Another worthwhile doc in limited release -- which I hadn’t seen in time for my last column to recommend for its now-ending NYC and LA runs (it opens in DC Friday and hits other cities throughout the summer) -- is Crime After Crime (my review), a film that follows two lawyers on a decade-long appeal for the release of a woman convicted of killing her abusive boyfriend. It’s an issue doc, which extends to grander concerns like domestic violence and prison conditions, but one you must see if you bother with less important cases like those that garner high ratings for HLN.

Upcoming DVD releases include the badly titled ventriloquism showcase Dumbstruck (my review), a simple and specialized doc that makes every effort not to mock its unusual subjects. You may project your own ridicule, but for an art form that already suffers enough disrespect, this is a safe place for fans and performers of the craft, even if they deserve something more substantial.

Another disappointment as a whole is American Grindhouse, which similarly will be appreciated by a limited demo at the very least. The film history doc is sadly a very slight and basic chronicle (albeit a scattered one, chronologically) of exploitation cinema, from Edison to, well, Grindhouse. But then why no interviews with Tarantino and Rodriguez? Or John Waters, who in general is a delightful onscreen personality and who already supplied relative sound bites to the Barney Rosset profile, Obscene? Where’s the mention of the Roger Corman school and acknowledgment of its influence on the mentalities of modern Hollywood and current indie genre cinema? For what it’s worth, if you want to see for yourself before the DVD release, this doc is presently on Hulu.



Categories: Documentary, Features
Tags: Doc Talk, Tabloid
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