What a joy it is to see certain
absurdities in life and perspective and truth as filtered through the
vision of Errol Morris. The documentarian is well known for his
particular style of filmmaking, the kind that mixes interviews and
information with a distinct cinematic style. If he can keep his
subjects talking, they are bound to say just about anything, as was
the case in The Thin Blue Line when a murderer who got away with his
crime eventually confesses to the director in an interview. I also
have a particular fondness for the types of things he obsesses on,
such as a 15000 word essay on two photos of cannon balls on a roadway
from the Crimean war. Then there is his documentary on a Pet
Cemetery and its customers. The man has range, which brings us to...
Bondage, Beauty Queens, Kidnapping, Mormons and Dog Cloning - how do
they all connect? Through the British Tabloid rags of course and the
longevity of one particular story back in the late 1970s about a
North Carolina girl named Joyce McKinney who allegedly raped her
At one point during the peak of the "Manacled Mormon Sex Slave" paparazzi-explosion, two competing papers ran opposite stories: The first painted Joyce as an innocent woman desperate to get her cult brain-washed boyfriend back to her, while the other proudly pasted nude pictures on the front cover and elaborated on the sex and bondage operation she ran under the alias "Joey," several years before the kidnapping. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle, yet impossible to fully get considering the time passed, egos involved, and just a little bit of craziness on Joyce's part. Nevertheless, it is the journey, not the destination that is such a wonderful dollop of entertainment in Tabloid.
It turns out that Joyce is as obsessive as Morris can be in regards to love of her life, Kirk Anderson. She was a former beauty queen (Miss Wyoming), he a former Mormon priest-in-training. When Kirk left Joyce on a Mormon mission to Britain, she was suspicious that he was sent on the mission by the church to keep them apart. She does what any (*ahem*) sensible American woman would do; that is grab a few friends, hire a bodyguard and pilot and go to the UK to get her man back, by force if necessary. A replica gun and surveillance equipment was brought along just in case. Morris approaches the subject with his usual inquiring eye, interviewing one of the original journalists, a photographer who works for a rival newspaper, the airplane pilot who flew Joyce to the UK as was marginally involved in the alleged kidnapping scheme, and an ex-Mormon fellow that has certain things to say about the Church of Latter Day Saints. All of these guys are quirky and entertaining fellows unto themselves, but most of the interview time is spent with Joyce who is an expressive, lively kook of a lady. Clearly she believes what she is saying, and is smart enough (apparently a 168 IQ) to understand herself that you repeat something to yourself long enough you probably start to believe it. To underscore this, and her obsessive nature, Morris actually repeats a shot of Joyce filming the grounds of her family farm, five times, five slightly different takes. Again one could consider this a point of the dovetailing of Morris and McKinney's obsessions, through photography at least, they are kindred spirits - her the do-er, him the seeker. For the most part, the director just gives Joyce enough rope to hang herself, while himself obsession on the ambiguity and duality of the factual and anecdotal evidence. McKinney remains endearing at a distance. Things meander into the ridiculous with corn-pone expressions such as "You can't stuff a marshmallow into a parking meter!" - Joyce's particular way of describing non-consensual male sex.
Morris lets the 'facts' (or 'sensationalized details') from his other interview subjects come crashing up against Joyce and her 'sanitized' versions of the events. Her version of the "The Mormon Sex in Chains" story is that the three days in a Devin cottage was food, fun and sex and an attempt to de-program 'cult-Kirk.' The Church's version is that Kirk was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into non-consensual sex while tied to the bed at the same cottage. Either way, Kirk seemed to be doing much of this consensually, including going back to the Church after the incident. It is about here that the British Tabloid Press went on a feeding frenzy for the story. Each side (and each newspaper) has its own set of facts and details. It is how they are assembled, what angle of the story is fleshed out and what is ignored that form each facet of 'the truth' and how someone listening might empathize with one side or the other. As one Tabloid journo says, "There is something in this story for everyone!" He prefers to use the phrase "Chained" when Kirk was tied up with rope. He likes the sound of it better and it is not 'technically' inaccurate. He also favours the phrase "Spread-Eagled" in which Morris helpfully splashes up on the screen in large-point type every time he says it. Sensationalism sells in both trash-news and documentary filmmaking (and, apparently, comedy.)
You have to laugh at this, and indeed this documentary has made me laugh more than any in recent memory. Tabloid is as far away as possible from Morris' last picture, a grim expose of the Abu Ghraib torture photos, but it deals with the same sticky nature of truth and photographs and how what is out of the frame is often far more important that what is in the frame. This film is as shamelessly entertaining as the titular newspapers, and twice as smart in execution. The tabloid story was one of the biggest in England, and spread around the world at the time had Joyce upstaging Joan Collins on her own red carpet and Joyce kissing Keith Moon at the Hollywood premiere of Saturday Night Fever. You see, Joyce got out of the arrest warrant laid down by the British Government (and now subsequently dropped) by faking travel documents and posing as a Deaf and Dumb person (along with one of her accomplices) to simply up and leave the UK for the US after things got too much. She cleared customs on both sides of the Atlantic in disguise with 13 suitcases full of her own press clippings. She continued to give incognito interviews to one of the Tabloids while dressed in bad east-Indian costumes and brown-face. The press says 'fled,' she says, 'left.' And we have not even got to the dog cloning...