When is it Okay to Laugh at a Real Person?

From the Doc Talk archives, Christopher Campbell highlights a concern regarding documentaries wanting to get laughs at the expense of their subjects.

Joyce McKinney Tabloid laugh
Moxie Pictures

Doc Talk was once a biweekly column on Movies.com devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This installment published July 13, 2011, looks at an ethical concern regarding a certain — often desired — audience reaction to — namely a laugh — some documentary subjects.

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 LA event — to challenge its validity. Okay, so she can join Q-Tip, the US 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 LA 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 a 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 “docuseries,” as they’re being rebranded as these days) that are paid well for being mocked on a weekly basis.

One 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.

Edie 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 even 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 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.

This article was originally published elsewhere on July 13, 2011, and has been reposted with permission.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.