Film Reviews

Tabloid Errol Morris

Rating - 7/10

Daily Express columnist Peter Tory characterizes former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney’s 1977 romp across North America and England as a “perfect tabloid story,” containing “kinky sex… a kidnap at gunpoint… Mormon missionaries… There’s something in that story for everyone.”  Tabloid, Errol Morris’ latest documentary, further addends her incredible tale with commentary from personalities hired or associated with her along with press reporters, religious figures, and of course the resilient McKinney herself, to essentially reveal a spiritual kinship with and literal attachment to canines, which continues to be a tabloid story to this day.  Reporters claim to have uncovered her supposed ‘70s debaucheries through sheepdog Millie; in later years McKinney was rescued by a pint-sized pit bull she named Booger (after her guard dog mauled her from an adverse Prednisone drug reaction); and in 2008, McKinney commissioned a South Korean scientist to clone Booger in the the first-ever commercial canine cloning.

The details of McKinney’s prior international notoriety is superseded by a sort of psychoanalysis that Morris wants viewers to utilize.  Despite his editing manipulations and musical cues, this technique works due to McKinney’s unique, vivacious mannerisms.  Since 1978’s Gates of Heaven (curiously a year after the McKinney scandal), Morris has stumbled upon the truth in his documentaries by unorthodox methods, even exonerating Randall Dale Adams through the process of exposing outright liars in one his noblest works, The Thin Blue Line (1988).  But Tabloid is a different story in both the literal sense and turn of phrase.  Is there a truth to be found, or is this intended to be mere entertainment?  Is Morris or McKinney directing?  Morris intentionally recreates the aesthetic of a tabloid on celluloid through a visual pastiche of newspaper clippings, superimposition of provocative words over profiled speakers, and integration of cartoon reel footage against Mormon theology and McKinney’s accounts.  Tabloid is not an exercise in objectivity regarding the organization and condescending attention to information, which serve as the simultaneous appeal and aversion.  However, if McKinney’s own theatrical and fantastical penchants are considered, Morris is merely meeting her own embroidered level and aptly creating his own Tabloid of her story with her consent... if only that were enough for the insatiable McKinney.
Tabloid shuffles through past and present preliminary information at an accelerated pace – perhaps too quickly – in its opening minutes.  Morris introduces a young woman in what appears to be a home movie, who reads from her novel, A Very Special Love Story, or, as she’d want you to believe, her autobiography.  “Once upon a time there was a little princess, the most beautiful little princess in all the land,” she tritely envisions.  Continuing with the ring of idealistic, unfulfilled desires, “But the little princess was unhappy, for she was lonely.  Someday she would find her kind, handsome prince…”  Without any additional information whatsoever, Joyce McKinney’s lack of self-awareness presents itself in her pursuit of the life of a fairy tale, which is in itself a tabloid story.  Halfway through the film, McKinney vulnerably rebels against the celebrity characterization of herself.  “I’m just a person, a human being that was caught in an extraordinary circumstance.”  The two key words ‘caught in’ are a liberal attribution considering the circumstances from any angle.  As Morris manages to piece together from various sources, this is what she, in fact, sought out.

As a 19-year-old teenager in Salt Lake City, she first encounters her clean-cut “special guy” named Kirk Anderson, a Mormon, in a slick white Corvette.  Utterly taken with each other and declaring love, they avow to be married within days, but Kirk’s sudden disappearance devastates her.  Suspecting the Mormon Church’s involvement, she moves to L.A., becomes involved in questionable activity, hires a private investigator who pins Kirk’s location to London, England, and finally recruits bodyguards and a pilot to escort her.  (Ignoring the parallels of a movie plot, the real question is, of course, where did she acquire the money to pursue this? It’s one that is never answered).  At this point, McKinney’s longing for a fantasy life intertwines with crude reality.  Not to spoil the grandest details, but once she arrives in London, the situation results in (the reporting of) a kidnapping with chloroform and a gun, three days of deviant sexual acts, roadway arrests en route to a wedding ceremony, and a subsequent trial, thus ruining McKinney’s transatlantic affair.  Regardless, the incident instantly transforms her into a tabloid celebrity, and her case of “The Manacled Mormon,” assumes mythic proportions, as she sneaks back to North America.  McKinney, still retaining the delusion of her life’s potential as a fairy tale, considers capitalizing on the attention and interest in her escapades but not before competing stories surface and attempt to ruin her proclaimed virtue.

Two figures in the film, the aforementioned columnist Tory and former Mormon missionary Troy Williams, project the idea of the truth found somewhere in-between the cluster of scenarios and media depictions of McKinney.  These presentations suggest the elusive nature of McKinney and question whether or not anyone truly knows her.  As Kirk Anderson refused to participate in Morris’ documentary, his version of events (and McKinney) will sadly go untold.  But, in a way, his unwillingness and absence lends Tabloid its intrigue, where McKinney’s self-defensiveness morphs into a comic sense of unbelievability.  Donning disguises and fake names to avoid media scrutiny yet later seeking it out in order to maintain her innocence, McKinney appears to be wearing all the hallmarks of a reality television star before the subject and medium even existed.  What’s more curious is that Tabloid at times approaches the essence of reality television either though Morris’ own filmic timeline that cuts and pastes with dramatic music or through the absurd discrepancies between the accounts of its cast of real life people (or characters).  At one point during her trial in England, regarding the Mormon Church’s oppression of Kirk, she carefully accentuates, “You know, you can tell yourself a lie long enough ‘til you believe it,” a statement that immediately boomerangs back.

Like any other documentary involving a living person, McKinney’s narrative continues unraveling after the credits.  Since the film’s completion, Morris has publicly appeared with McKinney (and at least one of her cloned Boogers) on a few occasions; following 2010’s New York Documentary Film Festival screening, she openly condemns Tabloid on-stage (while he awkwardly stands beside her with a stupefied grin), proclaiming her own story to be misrepresented as a “sex comedy” based on audience reaction.  She then panders to them for approval.  Morris essentially concludes the open forum with a comment about her being his “favorite protagonist,” a clever nod to McKinney’s dramatization.  Most recently, The Guardian reports that McKinney is now officially suing Morris over her ‘vicious and malicious’ portrayal in the film.  While it’s difficult to argue how Morris’ choppy editing may alter perceptions in his favor, it suddenly becomes clear that Tabloid is not exactly an Errol Morris film (or ‘love story’ as promotions have re-branded) but rather a sustained Joyce McKinney production.  There will always be more regarding her life and discerning fiction from truth, delusions from reality.  Until she can no longer participate, McKinney will habitually be seeking the press to top herself as the perfect tabloid story.