Tag Archives: Errol Morris



FEATURING: Dave Hoover, Rodney Brooks, Ray Mendez, George Mendonça

PLOT: A documentary profiling an unlikely quartet of individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary master, a naked mole-rat expert, and a robot designer.

Still from Fast, Cheap and out of Control (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Four mildly eccentric characters don’t qiute add up to one weird movie.

COMMENTS: You have to assume that the genesis of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control was something like the following: Errol Morris had leads on four personalities he could profile for his next documentary, but none of the potential subjects were quite quirky enough to carry an entire feature; he decided to go ahead and interview each separately and edit the footage together to highlight the connections that spontaneously arise between the men’s varied obsessions. Although clearly guided by Morris’ hand, the shape of the documentary seems to arise naturally as the four men discuss their individual passions for animal training, gardening, mole rats and automatons. Sometimes, scenes illustrating one man’s field of expertise will play while another interviewee narrates; while the mole-rat expert talks about nature’s indifference, we see a staged battle between a captive cats. Morris melts the experts’ individual interests into each other to form an intellectual batter. The robot designer reveals that when he set about to create a machine that would scramble over terrain, it turned into a relatively stable robot that quite accidentally looked like an insect. In the meantime, the mole-rat expert is fascinated by the idea that these rare mammals, who live their entire lives underground, have developed a sociobiological structure that resembles the termite. Evolution is an ever-present theme, as is craftsmanship—the animal trainer must create his art by paying careful attention to his deadly raw materials (lions and tigers), the topiary master must work with the shape of the bush to bring out the animal inside it. A large part of the movie therefore becomes about the process of creation, the interplay between the constraints imposed by the raw materials of the natural world and the shapes men impose on them, whether the product is a circus act, a mole-rat display case, a leafy giraffe, or (by implication) a documentary film. That strand is only one of many in the tapestry of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; this is a non-obvious movie that flows along in a stream-of-consciousness way, and doesn’t tell you what to think about it. It’s a difficult experience to explain, but the melange works. The main thing that sets Morris apart from his lesser documentarian brethren is that he thinks cinematically, rather than focusing on imparting the maximum amount of information. The cinematography here (courtesy of long time Oliver Stone collaborator Robert Richardson) is vivid and varied: inventive angles, crisp colors, slo-mo segments and Super 8 film stocks supply multiple textures. Scenes from old B-movies (a serial-type adventure featuring lion tamer turned action idol Clyde Beatty) illustrate the action, along with many circus tableaux. The futurist carnival music comes courtesy of silent-movie score specialists the Alloy Orchestra.  Altogether it’s a rich concoction, one that’s much more “movielike” than standard “talking head” docs. If there’s one complaint here it’s that the topiarist is less interesting than the other three subjects. His line of work arouses fewer serious inquiries, and what speculations do come about form less of a connection with the other three. Much of his story focuses on his relationship with his deceased patron; this could conceivably have made for an interesting documentary on its own, but alongside the more abstract considerations suggested by the other panelists, it’s off to the side. Still, although it isn’t exactly weird, Morris’ unique, experimental documentary is thought provoking—and although it’s organic and seems unplanned, it’s not nearly as out-of-control as its title implies.

This film was the first feature film where Morris used his simple but ingenious invention called the “Interrotron”: a camera setup (similar to a teleprompter) that displays an image of the interviewer on a two-way lens, so that the interviewee appears to be making eye contact with the viewer when he talks.


“…studiously eccentric… nothing about [the subjects] is all that strange — or fascinating.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Buzzkill” who called it “fascinating stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


DIRECTED BY: Errol Morris

FEATURING: Joyce McKinney

PLOT: The strange but true story of Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who caused a

Still from Tabloid (2010)

tabloid sensation in Britain in 1977 when she was convicted of kidnapping a Mormon missionary, tying him up, and forcing him to have sex with her for three days.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Joyce McKinney, the subject of this documentary, is as odd and eccentric a woman as you’ll find outside of an institution, but the film itself isn’t otherwise weird.

COMMENTS:  “I don’t see what a 32-year-old sex-with-manacles case has to do with cloned puppies,” opines Joyce McKinney as the third act of Tabloid dawns.  The only connection between those two disparate headlines, of course, is McKinney herself, who, if she isn’t crazy, at least attracts crazy to herself like a cloned puppy attracts fleas. Now in her sixties, the former beauty queen still has a sweet old country gal drawl and a disarming charm that makes her, in oddball documentarian Errol Morris’ revival of a long dead scandal, a Tabloid star.  After winning the title of Miss Wyoming, McKinney’s story begins in earnest when she falls in love and plans to marry a handsome young Mormon in Utah.  One day (as she tells it), her beau simply disappears without warning or notice.  She tracks him to London where he is serving his two year Mormon mission, assembles a gang of bodyguards and a freelance pilot to track him down, and leaves for England with thirteen suitcases full of disguises and surveillance gear.  The sexagenarian ex-sexpot has consistently maintained that the liaison between her and her Latter Day Saint loverboy in a cottage in Devon was not only consensual, but one of the world’s great love stories: she deprogrammed her brainwashed lover with a “honeymoon” weekend of sex and back rubs, before the Church got their hooks back into him and turned him on her.  Once she’s put on trial, archival footage and testimony by journalists involved in the case paint a picture of a woman who loves the limelight almost as much as she loves abducting sex slaves.  Things heat up even further when the press digs up startlingly juicy details from her shady past and splays them on the cover of the Daily Mirror.  Disillusioned with notoriety, she skips bail and flies back to North America disguised as a deaf-mute.  Decades later, still pining for the lost love of her life, the once-gorgeous McKinney remains an old maid and a virtual hermit, comforted only by the unconditional love of her pit bull Booger and his eight clones.  Since the victim in the case has retired to normal life and refuses to be interviewed, and her primary accomplice is dead, the story is told almost entirely from McKinney’s viewpoint.  But the lack of rebuttal testimony doesn’t make her version of events much more believable; even before she explains how she trained her dog to dial 9-1-1 using a telephone with extra-large buttons, McKinney’s not a very credible witness.  But even though you may not buy her story, you may find yourself having a harder time doubting her sincerity; she ironically muses that “sometimes you can tell yourself a lie for so long that you start to believe it.”  The remarkable thing about Tabloid is how likable and harmless McKinney appears on screen; she comes off more as a grandmotherly type reminiscing about the good old days through rose colored glasses than like a multiple felon inventing self-serving justifications for her crimes.  The tale is told almost entirely via interviewees speaking directly to the camera, although Morris assembles a few witty collages from torn newspaper clippings to fill in the extra spaces.  The issue of the British press’ exploitation of the whole salacious affair (which the dubbed the “Mormon sex in chains” case) is touched upon, but Tabloid isn’t an indictment of trashy gossip journalism: it’s a clever, polished example of it.  There’s little to the movie besides the bizarreness of the yarn itself.  It’s entertaining, but if it has a downside it’s that you may start to feel sorry for the deluded, exploited McKinney in ways she never intended you to when she seized this opportunity to (once again) tell her side of the story.

Devout Mormons will want to stay away from Tabloid, as the film takes some dry shots at the religion (including revelations about their beliefs re: the mystical powers of undergarments, and animated segments illustrating planetary dominion in the afterlife).  The inclusion of an anti-Mormon activist, who has no relationship to the McKinney case, as a talking head is one of the documentary’s few obvious missteps.


“…a bizarre crime tale recounted by the loopy ex-beauty queen alleged to have committed it… in Joyce McKinney, Morris has found a fittingly weird and funny muse.”–Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel (contemporaneous)