Errol Morris has some fun with the sex-stoked case of the “manacled Mormon”
Published: August 3, 2011
Directed by Errol Morris
Joyce McKinney could be your mom, if your mom was an aging former beauty queen from North Carolina. Sitting before documentarian Errol Morris’ camera with her helmet of blond locks, her slightly sparkly blazer, and her round, smiling face, she exudes the bubbly cheer and glad-handedness of, well, a former beauty queen. But since she’s being filmed by Morris, the seminal documentarian behind Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, you can be certain that she is not entirely what she seems. Before Tabloid’s end credits roll, McKinney’s tale will encompass a love story, nude modeling, a kidnapping plot, (male) sex slavery, a press-stoked scandal, international flight from justice, and more that it wouldn’t do to reveal here. And yet Tabloid ultimately fails to live up to Morris’ best work.
Which is not to say it’s not entertaining. How could it not be given the merry prurience of the story? As Morris’ trademark talking heads begin to tell it, in the mid-1970s, McKinney was a young woman possessed of a wholesome beauty who met a clean-cut, fairly ordinary-looking young man named Kirk Anderson. Unabashedly searching for a “special guy” to marry and start a family with, McKinney was smitten with Anderson, and he apparently smitten back. And then he disappeared.
Anderson, a Mormon, had left to do the missionary work all devout young Mormon men are called to do. In McKinney’s eyes, he had been kidnapped by a cult. Piecing together events from McKinney’s account, interviews with various onlookers/participants, and a mix of archival images and playful graphics, Morris tells the story of how she assembled a team of accomplices, flew to England, and either enticed or kidnapped Anderson from his mission and away to a remote cottage. Accounts vary regarding what happened next, but it is generally acknowledged that Anderson ended up handcuffed to a bed for several days (“spread-eagled,” as one interviewed journalist so often describes it that Morris starts using a screeching-eagle sound effect) while McKinney had sex with him.
When the case broke, McKinney became the dubious toast of the British tabloids overnight, a scandal queen to rival any who had come before. Tabloid lags a bit when it moves away from the incongruity of sweet, vivacious McKinney and her wanton acts to document the endgame of said wanton acts via interviews with tabloid vets. While McKinney may have been one of the first to play up and toy with scandal-sheet fame, there have been so many since that it seems less than revelatory. But one of Morris’ hallmarks as a filmmaker has always been patience, waiting until a subject reveals him- or herself, allowing a story to go long enough to surprise you. Just as Gates of Heaven, a film ostensibly about the relocation of a pet cemetery, expanded into an unlikely meditation on dreams deferred, Tabloid veers in the final reel toward indications that McKinney may have somehow crossed over fully into the warped reality tabloid journalism has created.
Morris’ last two features, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, were rather somber, but he’s clearly having fun here, and it’s infectious. At the same time, Morris has always led the way among his documentary peers by making cinematic sumptuousness and artifice as valid as gritty verite. Perhaps there wasn’t much to film (or much budget to film it), but Tabloid’s bare-bones mix of talking heads and graphics feels especially canned and airless, more like a supersized episode of Morris’ short-lived half-hour Q&A series First Person than a feature film.
It’s worth noting, also, that The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure were in large part about perception versus reality and how we mediate the two; in recent years Morris has blogged extensively for The New York Times about the gap between representations of reality (e.g. photographs) and the reality they depict. It seems plain from Tabloid that McKinney’s image and account of herself as a woman risking everything for her true love elides certain other realities, and interviewees drop mentions of more, including nudism, exhibitionism, and what sounds like prostitution. But Morris lets the information fly as rumors, unchallenged, unverified, and unrebutted by McKinney herself, other than her blanket protestations of wholesomeness. While that may be part of the point—the de facto innuendo adds to the carnivalesque air of Tabloid—it leaves questions lingering, and not necessarily the enjoyable kind.
Early in the film, McKinney claims on-camera that she has an IQ of 168. That’s among the many things not proved or disproved here, but either way it hints that anyone taking her on the peaches-and-cream face of it risks being made a fool of. There’s enough substance, solipsism, and deceptive oddity to her to make her fascinating either way. (Asked whether Anderson, who isn’t interviewed, was a willing participant in their sex together, she laughs and quips that if a man isn’t willing, it’s like “trying to stuff a marshmallow into a parking meter.”) You’ll enjoy meeting her through Morris’ lens.
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