Tabloid is the latest chapter in Errol Morris’ career long documentary ode to American eccentricity. His talent lies in finding remarkably odd and unique people and gently prodding them until they reveal life stories that would almost be too surreal to believe as fiction. Tabloid might not have the political significance of say Morris’ Oscar-winning Robert McNamara profile Fog Of War, but it just might be his most intriguing story to date. It’s a film that involves alleged Mormon rape, tabloid scandal, BSDM, mime border crossing, dog cloning, and a three-legged horse. In short, it’s got everything you need for a giddy night at the movies. The fact that it all happened to the same woman Joyce McKinney just makes the material that much more intriguing. Morris has never found a more fascinating subject than McKinney and through her quietly created one of his best films. Hit the jump for more.
Morris apparently found McKinney while prepping a possible TV show interviewing the subjects of various tabloid scandals. However once he scratched the surface of his subject’s life story, he realized it had to be a movie. It’s easy to see why. McKinney is most famous (or infamous) for her involvement in the Manacled Mormon scandal that filled British Tabloid’s in the 70s. The short version of that story is that former beauty queen became so obsessed with a Mormon missionary that she flew to England to kidnap and take him to a country cottage for the weekend. What happened at the cottage will never fully be known. The missionary Kirk Anderson (who has refused all interview requests since that weekend) claimed he was raped after speaking with Church officials, leading to McKinney’s arrest and countless tabloid headlines. However, McKinney has another story, cheekily dismissing rape allegations as being as impossible as “putting a marshmallow into a parking meter,” she claimed they had a weekend of passionate love making before the church got a hold of Anderson and brainwashed him into making unjustified raped allegations.
McKinney instantly became a phenomenon in Britain, seen cavorting to parties with celebrities while she was out on bail and was the subject of a war between two powerful tabloids. The rags subsequently unearthed pictures showing that McKinney worked as a dominatrix before the case, which she dismissed. McKinney then snuck back into America by pretending to be part of a traveling mime troupe. You’d think that would be enough of a colorful media frenzy for one life time, but decades later McKinney found herself making headlines again when she was responsible for funding the first dog cloning, creating biological duplicate of her longtime pet named Booger. Its amazing life story filled with unanswerable questions, half-truths, and confirmed facts far more unbelievable than any of the rumors. In short, McKinney is the perfect subject for Morris’ endlessly inquisitive yet admirably non-judgmental brand of filmmaking.
Ever since his debut Gates Of Heaven, Morris has shown an incredible skill for profiling eccentric personalities in a way that celebrates their life with humor and understanding and not a shred of cynical judgment. Over time, his process has evolved and now he rarely shoots anything other than interviews with his subjects, letting their stories and personality dictate the subject, style, and meanings of his films. Joyce McKinney is undeniably one of his most fascinating subjects. He gets outside input from a few other people involved in her story like tabloid editors and her accomplice in the Mormon kidnapping, but in the end the story comes almost exclusively from McKinney herself. It’s impossible to tell what is the 100% truth. The only elements known to be facts are her involvement in the kidnapping and dog-cloning and nothing else is any less or more believable than those remarkable truths.
There’s a quest for truth that defines Morris’ work (let’s not forget that his most famous documentary The Thin Blue Line solved a crime and got a innocent man off of death row), yet with Tabloid absolute truth isn’t necessarily possible. Instead, Morris opts for the old tabloid philosophy, “print the legend.” McKinney could very well be insane, yet Morris never exploits or mocks her. He merely lets her tell her story. There are discrepancies in her tale that neither Morris nor the audience will ever come to terms with (yes, the British tabloids had the motivation to manufacture the dominatrix photos, but why would they invest that much time and effort in a pre-photoshop age and how did they create so many believable forgeries?), but that’s not really the point. With a story this compelling, who cares about the truth? If anything, the grey areas only make McKinney’s life that much more fascinating.
Errol Morris is one of those rare filmmakers who creates movies in a style that is entirely his own. Some of his techniques have found their way into the standard documentary practice because they are so effective, but no one makes a movie quite like Morris. Tabloid couldn’t have been made by any other filmmaker. Who else could have found the story and gotten key players to speak so openly and honestly? Who else could make 90 minutes of talking heads so stylish and entertaining? Who else could compile facts, half-truths, opinions, and legends, into a single concise narrative? Tabloid would be an entirely unique movie were it not for the overlaps with Morris’ previous work. This type of eccentric profile piece is what Morris was born to do and while he may have found subjects in the past that carry more emotional, philosophical, or political weight, never has he found a story this intriguing and unpredictable. Even knowing the basic outline of the events can’t compete with seeing the tale unfold through McKinney’s own voice and Morris’ impeccable skill with cinematic storytelling. It’s hard to imagine that you’ll walk out of another film this year that will weave a more ripping yarn or leave you with so many questions to ponder. Simply put, this is a great outing from a uniquely personal filmmaker. Nights at the movies don’t get much better than this, despite the total lack of giant robots, pirates, and explosions.