Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Making headlines: Errol Morris' Tabloid

In 1977 Joyce McKinney, a 28 year-old model and former Miss Wyoming, journeyed to England on a mission of love. With apparently unlimited funds at her disposal and fearing possible violence, she’d hired a pilot and a couple of body guards to accompany her, but in the end her dutiful old buddy Keith May was her sole accomplice as, depending on who you believe, she either kidnapped or liberated Kirk Anderson, the dumpy 21 year-old Mormon missionary Joyce claimed was brainwashed by his church. Kirk was her fiancé, she says, and the love of her life. However willing or unwilling Kirk was, he wound up shackled to a bed in a cottage in the Devon countryside, a bed upon which Joyce, by her own testimony, administered three days of hot, therapeutic sex, just enough to temporarily bring Kirk back to his senses, but not enough to prevent his returning to the Church of Latter Day Saints and ultimately declaring in a courtroom that Joyce raped him. Rape? This made no sense whatsoever to our ever-cheerful, practical-minded anti-heroine. How can a woman possibly rape a man? Joyce asks. “It’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.”

Sex, religion, abduction, bondage, a feisty, sexy, sly subject oozing with natural showmanship and sporting a delectable Southern accent: “Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon” was perfect tabloid material. And perfect material for Errol Morris’ latest film, Tabloid. Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) has made a career of interrogating the sensational, but with McKinney it turns out that very little prodding was needed. Morris spent a single day in 2010 interviewing the still vivacious McKinney about the scandal and walked away with documentary gold. There’s this refrain that clings to every Morris project, something about how he looks down on his subjects or even wants to humiliate them, but I don’t buy it for a minute. Watching Tabloid again in preparation for this review it seemed to me that Morris was, if anything, completely seduced by McKinney. Like the many who did her bidding as she orchestrated the entire drama and media circus in the UK, Morris became a slave of sorts. How could you not? McKinney’s story, complete with ridiculous disguises and daring escapes, is just too good (to be true?), even with all her absurd allegations and bits of bawdy-folksy wisdom. McKinney is no fool. She says she was placed in a school for gifted kids because she had an IQ of 168, and, as with everything she says, you kind of believe her. The film’s most compelling question: does she believe herself?

In keeping with the titular theme, Morris smacks the screen over and over with gaudy, zippy, superimposed headlines, sometimes as a way of efficiently letting us know about contradicting facts (KIDNAPPED flashes over McKinney’s face as she claims Anderson’s consensual accompaniment to the love shack), sometimes just to emphasize certain favourite words of his subjects. (Peter Tory, reporter for the Daily Express, the tabloid who opted to print McKinney’s version of the events, clearly has a predilection for the term “spread-eagled,” which he employs whenever he refers to Anderson’s captivity.) And Morris keeps the dizzyingly entertaining Tabloid peppy and propulsive by jumping back and forth between McKinney and his handful of other smartly selected subjects: Tory, salty rival tabloid photog Kent Gavin, Salt Lake City radio host and ex-Mormon Troy Williams, still-horny-for-Joyce hired pilot Jackson Shaw, and one Dr. Hong, a Korean genetic scientist who supplies crucial commentary on Tabloid’s wonderfully WTF?! denouement, in which we find out about McKinney’s descent into agoraphobic reclusion and batshit home video making in the 1980s and her return to the public eye in the 2000s following the death and eventual rebirth of her beloved Booger, a canine so extraordinary he could answer the phone and retrieve beverages from the refrigerator.

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