As a documentarian, Errol Morris is less a humanist than a connoisseur of "human interest," and Tabloid, his ecstatically received and queasily entertaining new movie, is not so much a return to form as a reminder of his ongoing fascination with the freak-show fringe of American life.
Dealing with Holocaust denial, the Vietnam War, and Abu Ghraib torture, the films of Morris' atrocity trilogy — Mr. Death (1999), The Fog of War (2003), and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) — were all meditations on the nature of truth, at once lofty and snide. But no moralizing is required here. With Tabloid, Morris dismounts his high horse to revel in the grotesque saga of Joyce McKinney, the erstwhile Miss Wyoming and self-described Little Miss Perfect who, back in the heyday of Johnny Rotten and Poly Styrene, gave the British tabs another sort of bondage tale with her mad pursuit and alleged abduction of one Kirk Anderson, a young London-based missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The press dubbed it "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." As reported in the Nov. 23, 1977, edition of the London Evening News, a magistrates' court was held rapt as "a young Mormon missionary told today how an ex-beauty queen kidnapped him and then made love to him while he was chained to a bed in a lonely cottage. Kirk Anderson, 21, said the girl, Joyce McKinney, and her friend, Keith May, tied down his arms and legs with leather straps, padlocks, chains and rope, so that he was spread-eagled."
Kirk's account made an impression, but the press was even more taken with his alleged abductor, whose Southern drawl was nearly as exotic as her love object's religion and whose testimony proved even more lurid. The 28-year-old McKinney vigorously insisted that, rather than the rape Anderson described, their sex (which she explained in uninhibited detail) had been consensual. Moreover, she was in the throes of a world-historic passion: "I loved Kirk so much that I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose."
McKinney is a fabulous creature with a surefire story. No need for the staged re-enactments Morris has used in previous movies — this vivacious fruitcake is available to tell her own tale. (It's perhaps because Morris's subject is such easy, interesting fun that he also eschews the formalist precision that characterized his brilliant early work.) Welcome to the Joyce McKinney Show: A seasoned self-promoter, she introduces herself as a fairy-tale princess with an IQ of 168, the sad victim of her own dewy-eyed notions of love and romance ... and the Mormon church. Released on bail in advance of the trial scheduled for May 1978, she hobnobbed with pop stars and even upstaged Joan Collins at a movie premiere. She saw celebrity as her due, and her shameless hamming for the camera was even more fantastically amplified once the story broke that she had supported herself as a nude model — complete with Bettie Page-style bondage sessions (Daily Mirror headline: "How Little Miss Perfect Made a Fortune"). There were hundreds of pictures.
Amid an escalating press war, McKinney went crazy — like a fox. Along with her adoring alleged accomplice, she jumped bail and, disguised in a sari, fled back home to America. Then, after 30 years of obscurity, her tabloid career had a suitably bizarre second act — again founded on an instance of mad love. The object in this case was McKinney's pet pit bull and longtime companion, Booger, a dog she credits with saving her life, being smart enough to dial 911. When, after a decade of companionship, Booger passed, McKinney decided to have him cloned five times by a Seoul-based lab that, although Morris doesn't tell us this, gave her a massive discount in the (well-founded) hope that she would be good PR.
Joyce McKinney is a piece of work. When it comes to interrogating her, though, Morris is no tougher than he was with Robert McNamara. As with McNamara's rationalizations, denials, and bald-faced lies, McKinney's schizoid, weirdly impish pronouncements are lovingly transcribed and allowed to stand unchallenged by her interviewer. (Why should he bother to call her out? How she saw something, or describes it, carries more weight now than what might actually have happened.) Still, Tabloid is not quite all Joyce, all the time — Morris talks to two British journalists, one nonplussed, the other unapologetically smarmy, and a onetime McKinney accomplice, while interspersing inflammatory new headlines and old newspaper clippings throughout, along with illustrative found footage humorously deployed in the manner of Craig Baldwin's faux-fundamentalist rant Tribulations 99 (as when an idyllic clip from the romantic saint story Brother Sun, Sister Moon stands in for Joyce's tryst with Kirk). Like the Baldwin film, Tabloid is, at least in part, a parody of religious belief. Morris's sense of irony is evident throughout; McKinney's is not. Even now, much of her animus is directed toward the Mormons: "They made me think they were a church!" (A cursory online investigation suggests that McKinney became Mormon in the hope of landing one of the Osmonds — a strategic conversion unmentioned in the movie.)
Thanks in part to the psychological insights provided by talking head Troy Williams, the Mormon apostate and radio host dubbed the "gay mayor of Salt Lake City," Tabloid takes on additional topicality — the movie has points of contact with Broadway's megasmash The Book of Mormon and the current multi-Mormon Republican presidential race. The real subject, however, is McKinney's imaginative self-dramatizing — her capacity to act upon and sustain a fantasy scenario, complete with fantasy memories. ("If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it," she says of the media without apparent irony.) Thus Tabloid's New York premiere at a documentary festival last fall was punctuated with cries of "Lies!" and "Not her!" reportedly delivered from the audience by McKinney herself. After the movie, she joined Morris onstage, resplendent in a pink pantsuit, a cloned pit bull in tow, to deliver one more self-justifying monologue.
In comparing Tabloid to Kurosawa's Rashomon, the classic example of subjective narrative and a code for unknowable truth, Morris seems to suggest that it is impossible to establish the particulars of the McKinney-Anderson affair, among other aspects of the Joyce McKinney story — and he's got a movie without needing to investigate. As the filmmaker surely knows, such presumed unfathomability is ultimately less compelling, though, than the enigma of her self-created personality. She doesn't seem delusional, but does she really, truly believe her own explanations? This is the source of the movie's fascination. Absurd as it sounds, McKinney's conviction is not only convincing but contagious. So, too, is her elastic sense of reality — a 90-minute immersion in her world is enough to make you question your own.