January 20, 2012

Friday Review: Tabloid

Errol Morris is one of the most decorated documentary filmmakers of our age. In Standard Operating Procedure he probed the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the urge of the perpetrators to document their crimes. In The Fog of War he laid bare the soul of Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. And in The Thin Blue Line, he dug deep into a Texas murder case (creating the documentary technique of reenactment in the process) and got an innocent man off of death row. The man makes deep, thoughtful films about deadly serious topics.

Tabloid is not one of those. Don’t get me wrong, it is thoughtful and feints at some broader themes and deep issues. But, really, it’s not destined to go down alongside those films as milestone work in Morris’s career. It is, however, a ripping good story based around one of those real life characters that Morris is so adept at finding (and getting talking).

The real character at the center of Tabloid is Joyce McKinney, who first came to Morris’s attention because of a news story about an ungodly amount of money she spent having her beloved dog Booger (no shit!) cloned in South Korea. The story contained a brief reference to her infamous past, which set Morris on the case. What infamous past?

In 1977, an American named Kirk Anderson was doing his Mormon missionary work in the UK. One day, he was “abducted” from in front of the local Mormon temple. He showed up in London a few days later, explaining that McKinney (with whom Anderson had been involved back in the US) kidnapped him, hauled him off to a cottage in Devon, chained him to a bed, and raped him repeatedly over the course of several days.

McKinney tells a completely different story, as you might imagine. It begins in the US, where after she and Anderson fell madly in love (to the disdain of Anderson’s faithful Mormon mother), he abruptly disappeared. McKinney assembled an odd team, including a private detective, a pilot, and a bodyguard from Gold’s Gym and, having tracked Anderson to the UK, set off to get him back. The pilot and bodyguard didn’t last too long in the operation. McKinney tracked down Anderson, whom she described as having been brainwashed into a cult. He willingly went with her to Devon and was a willing, if not altogether enthusiastic (due to his Mormon indoctrination about sex), participant in all that happened there. He “escaped” when they went to London to get married.

The case, dubbed “The Case of the Manacled Mormon,” blew up in the British media, and particularly in a pair of dueling tabloid newspapers. The Daily Mail threw in on McKinney’s side, paying her for her side of the story. The Daily Mirror, on the other hand, frozen out without access to McKinney, dove into her past in America and dug up all kinds of juicy dirt involving pornography and prostitution. McKinney and her accomplice eventually made bail and fled back the US (according to one article she was apparently convicted and sentenced in absentia, but extradition was never sought).

Tabloid is basically a one-sided narrative. The only direct participant in the affair who talks is McKinney – Anderson refused to be interviewed. Everyone else’s involvement either ended before the disputed events or they are relaying hearsay information. Given that, it’s fascinating that at the end of the film you’re left with more questions than answers about what actually happened. For what it’s worth, I favor a third hypothesis (between McKinney’s romantic tale and the purely criminal escapade) put forward by a former Mormon brought in for some context: that Anderson went with McKinney willingly, but somewhere along the way his conditioning kicked in, he regretted whatever happened, and claimed kidnapping as a way to cover it up. It is entirely possible that McKinney is seductive enough to reel him in, and crazy enough to scare him off (she was later arrested in the US for stalking Anderson – and has sued Morris!).

In the end, Scott Tobias over at the Onion AV Club sums things up well:
McKinney may well be a madwoman, but Morris connects so deeply to her obsessions that the film’s tone never seems exploitative or mocking. Mostly, it’s just endlessly curious in the familiar Morris way: curious about another in his career-long gallery of eccentrics, curious about British tabloid culture, and curious about how radically stories are distorted, both by outlets looking for an angle and by individuals who reserve their greatest deceits for themselves. Tabloid is tonally removed from something like The Fog Of War, but in the end, McKinney and Fog subject Robert McNamara are each trying to control narratives that are out of their hands and have a complicated relationship to the truth.
And that’s always fun to watch, if nothing else.

And now, because I can’t hear about British tabloids without thinking of this song . . . “Paper Lies”:

The Details

Released 2010
Directed by Errol Morris

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