Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 15, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2010)

10. Tabloid

To say that Errol Morris only makes two types of documentaries is diminishing to his skills as a filmmaker. However, Morris’ movies can generally be separated into two categories. The first of which is his important, political and historical work. “The Thin Blue Line” got a wrongfully accused man out of prison. “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure” shed light on the controversies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. The other category is intimate interviews with quirky, unique individuals about unusual topics. “Gates of Heaven,” “Vernon, Florida,” and “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” are examples. “Tabloid” fits snugly inside the second style. While both types of film are often great, I’ll admit a preference to the second type. “Tabloid” may even be my favorite of all of Errol Morris’ films.

Some time in the late seventies, a former beauty pageant queen from the American south named Joyce McKinney became romantically obsessed with Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary. McKinney claims the two were in love. After Anderson left for the U.K. on a religious mission – without telling McKinney – she organized a group of people to help her travel the world and find the man of her dreams. After locating him, Joyce kidnapped Kirk, took him to a secluded cottage in the country side, and tied him to a bed. How consensual the following sex was is debated. After Kirk was freed and Joyce was put on trial, a media circus erupted. The British tabloids made McKinney a minor celebrity. Yet Joyce’s bizarre story was only beginning.

That “Tabloid” is the first movie made about McKinney’s stranger-than-fiction story is surprising. The tale presented in “Tabloid” is so perfectly unusual, spinning in multiple unexpected directions with a fascinating figure at its center. As one of the tabloid reporters explain in the film, the story has everything: Sex, religion, intrigue, bondage, kidnapping. The story even had a catchy name: “The Case of the Manacled Mormon!” No wonder Joyce sold so many papers. Yet the best part of “Tabloid” is how the story gets weirder and weirder the longer it goes on. Joyce’s true nature, what really happened in that cottage, what she did on the way to prison, how the media handled it, and even her post-scandal life back in America is unpredictable and compelling. This is exactly the kind of subject that deserves a film.

Errol Morris has interviewed some colorful characters over his films. Award winning astrophysicists, death chamber designers, lion tamers, and deep south eccentrics have all told their stories in front of his cameras. Yet few of them compare to Joyce McKinney. McKinney’s distinctive accent and odd figures of speech make her immediately memorable. Undeniably, she tells her story through self-interested rose colored glasses. She describes the Church of Latter-Day Saints as a cult. When discussing her boyfriend’s time with the Mormon church, she describes him as brain-washed and robotic, talking about a Kirk #1 and Kirk #2. She frames her romance with Kirk in fairy tale terms, with everyone else – from Kirk’s parents, the Mormon Church, and the media – keeping them apart. According to her own telling, Joyce’s adventure includes extreme violence, magical spirits, elaborate disguises, and contraband hidden inside her bodily cavities. (All of this is aside from the time she kidnapped and raped a guy.) In other words, Joyce McKinney is fucking nuts. Like many crazy people, she’s fascinating to watch.

Yet Joyce’s version of events is not the only one told in “Tabloid.” Morris interviews the pilot that flew a plane across the Atlantic. According to this man, Joyce greeted him in a see-through top without a bra. Later, the same guy describes visiting a nude beach with Joyce, freely admitting that the former beauty queen – a shapely blonde – would be desired by any heterosexual male. Joyce presents herself as a virgin, a fairy tale princess totally pure in her motivations. Other anecdotes suggest Joyce was willing to use her physical beauty to get her way. Later, we learn Joyce worked as a call-girl, an on-demand dominatrix and massage therapist who performed oral sex on her clients. (Even this account points out that Joyce never had vaginal intercourse with the men.) Joyce outright denies these allegations, claiming the people who told these stories were liars and fraudsters. But they certainly explain how she funded her cross-Atlantic adventure.

The nature of the truth has been a reoccurring feature in Errol Morris’ movies: The facts of the murder case in “The Thin Blue Line,” the different perceptions of the abuse in “Standard Operating Procedure,” Fred Leuchter’s view of the truth in “Mr. Death.” In “Tabloid,” this theme manifest in the conflicting stories told about Joyce. Is Joyce, as she claims, a virtuous warrior of love? An advantageous seductress? A literal sex worker? At one point in the story, two rival British tabloids ran opposing sides of the story. One presented Joyce as the Madonna. The other presented her as the whore. As one of the film’s interview subjects points out, the truth likely lies somewhere between these two extremes. The viewer coming to their own conclusions is part of the fun of “Tabloid,” a mystery without a solution, that anybody can be caught up in.

Whatever your opinion of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is, you have to admit that some of the Church’s theology is… Eccentric. Joyce describes some of these beliefs while Morris digs up old footage from LDS educational films. About how Jesus was a polygamist, how God lives on a planet in the center of the universe, how black people were cursed by the Lord. Inevitably, the magic underwear comes up. Joyce claims she and Kirk burned his together. A former Mormon and an expert on the church is also interviewed. He back-ups the statement that the Church’s stance on sex is conservative, to say the least. That young Mormons are encouraged to become missionaries. He also shares an amusing anecdote, about Joyce McKinney becoming a Mormon bogey-woman, a succubus that could abduct young Mormons and steal away their precious virginity. If nothing else, the Church’s involvement adds another unusual element to this bizarre story.

Naturally, such a salacious true story caught the attention of the tabloids. In the U.K., the tabloids are notorious for focusing on sleazy, sexual stories. Which helps explain why Joyce became such a figure of fascination. Joyce, unsurprising given her attitudes, describes the tabloids as smutty and degrading. She talks about paparazzi doggedly pursuing her. Even once she’s back in America, Joyce claims people tracked her down. Yet her minor celebrity status earned Joyce some perks. It got her into a movie premiere, where she out shined star Joan Collins. While inside clubs, she got to meet Keith Moon, John Travolta, and the Bee Gees. She received adoring fan mail, from young men who would’ve been happy to been chained up by her. While the fame was fun at first, Joyce’s paranoid fantasies has the tabloid press becoming another one of her enemies. Considering we live in a world where internet viral videos can make nobodies somebodies, this side of “Tabloid” remains pertinent.

Joyce seemed to disappear from the public’s eye after interest in the story died down. She secluded herself from public life. This is illustrated with some home movies, where Joyce’s deranged narration accompanies footage of her parent’s house. Yet “Tabloid” takes another unexpected turn in the last act. McKinney tells an unlikely story of a vet sabotaging her pitbull’s medication, which caused him to go crazy and violently maw her. (It’s unlikely that Joyce could’ve survived the extreme wounds she describes.) Another pet of her’s, a stray named Booger, saved her life. Booger becomes the second love of Joyce’s life, being her companion in her later years. When Booger died of cancer, Joyce set out on another global adventure to rescue her love. The journey led her to Seoul, Korea, where Booger became the first commercially cloned dog. What could’ve been a sweet story is slanted by Joyce’s continued eccentric behavior. She repeats the name “Booger” like a mantra, which quickly becomes hilarious. She mentions God promising her that her dog will return to her. That Booger’s spirit visibly followed her on the plane ride. If you wrote this stuff, it would be described as over-the-top.

Morris’ film follows the visual cues of the tabloid, printing black-on-white headlines, grainy photographs, presenting his interviews inside a television, and emphasizing the salacious words used in the film. Joyce McKinney’s strange life and stranger personality followed “Tabloid” even after the film was finished. After the movie's release, McKinney sued Morris for defamation. She claimed the film portrayed her as a crazy rapist. Even though her actions would obviously be described as rape by any modern definition. As for “crazy?” Well, just watch the movie. (Since then, McKinney has also been connected with a bizarre burglary case.) “Tabloid” is hilarious, enthralling, and endlessly re-watchable. Who would’ve thought that a Wyoming beauty queen would provide Errol Morris with his most unusual interview? [Grade: A]

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