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Movie Review: Tabloid (R)

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MPAA Rating: R. Appropriate for ages 16 and up. There is only a smattering of swear words. For dramatic purposes, details are revealed gradually; the most sordid of these include revelations about prostitution and kinky sex, sometimes accompanied by the photos of nude women that are an indispensible feature of British tabloid “journalism”.

Fast, Cheap or Out of Control?

Who does Joyce McKinney think she is? Errol Morris’ inquiring mind wants to know.

By Jared Peterson

In 1977, Joyce McKinney, a bright, vivacious former Miss Wyoming, was arrested in England and charged with kidnapping Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary with whom she had had a brief but intense courtship back in the States. According to McKinney, it was all a misunderstanding—Anderson was in fact already kidnapped—stolen away and brainwashed by the Mormon Church and, in her view, its socially and sexually repressive hypocrisy. She was simply rescuing and “deprogramming” him—a process that happened to involve three days in a locked country cottage and a regimen of vigorous, questionably consensual lovemaking.

As you’d imagine, the story was ideal fodder for the famously scandal-hungry British tabloids. The case of “The Manacled Mormon”, as it became known, had it all: love, sex and crime with healthy doses of not-so-healthy obsession and repression. As the plot thickened, a clear structure emerged. The Daily Express became essentially the public forum for McKinney’s one-woman show. The rival broadsheet The Daily Mirror dug for and struck gold with details of a sordid past and accusations, difficult to substantiate but impossible to ignore, that McKinney had once peddled sexual services. The Express pictured her in a nun’s habit; the Mirror pictured her in the nude. Battle lines had been drawn—ones that allowed McKinney to further justify her behavior and paint herself as an innocent victim.

As the film goes on, both the wackiness and the weakness of McKinney’s narrative are revealed. Echoing that wackiness are some of the more out-there aspects of Mormon theology—magical underpants and the promise of an afterlife on one’s very own planet—as explained by Troy Williams, a former Mormon missionary, and by McKinney herself. Kooky, it seems obvious to say, is in the eye of the beholder.

Tabloid is not an exposé of the tabloid industry. (For the latest on that story, click on over to any media outlet.) The film is about McKinney and the elaborate personal saga she has created and sustained up until this day. It sheds light not so much on how the tabloids conjure sensationalism, but on how much some subjects can conjure it themselves, rising, as it were, to meet the lowest common denominator.

At the crossroads where the Mormon Church, the tabloid press and a spurned lover with the gift of gab all meet, their similarities become clear. Morris has woven a quirky, complex and fascinating story about the weavers of quirky, complex and fascinating stories. McKinney is the star, of course, a raconteur extraordinaire whose narrative powers are in full bloom. When her story involves an exchange or encounter with another person, she’ll recount it as dialogue, playing each part with equal aplomb. And she knows her stuff—her excoriations of Mormonism and its strictures are as articulate as they are passionate. She certainly comes across as a little crazy—not institution crazy, more like cornered-in-the-waiting-room-at-the-dentist crazy. You might not give her your email address or have her by for tea, but you wouldn’t necessarily cross the street to avoid her. And you might welcome bumping into her at the Starbucks and drinking in some of her vibrant, self-aggrandizing fiction, if only to have something interesting to talk about at dinner that night.

Here as in his other films, master documentarian Errol Morris demonstrates a fascination with obsessive and self-rationalizing behaviors. His style is always playful but self-aware, and he uses sight and sound to hold together and enliven tales cobbled mainly from clips of talking heads. Newspaper-style headlines and pull quotes splash across the screen, and the words of his subjects are sometimes stamped below or across their faces. At one point, as McKinney’s telling reaches a fever pitch, her story is punctuated and paragraphed with the urgent clanging of a typewriter return. Perhaps the only place where the lightness of tone falters is in portions of the discussion of McKinney and Anderson’s lost weekend, which are blithely dismissive of the notion of female-on-male sexual assault.

The release of Tabloid couldn’t have come at a better time. Mormonism and its more unusual practices captivate the public; they are currently being mined for both comedy and drama on Broadway, pay-cable television and in the political arena. Meanwhile, of course, in England and elsewhere the callous and unconscionable methods of some scandal sheets have brought down careers and whole institutions, with more turmoil and intrigue sure to follow. Despite its title, Morris’ documentary mostly leaves the tabloids and their readers alone, neither condoning nor taking them to task for their insatiable appetite for sensation. It’s sometimes said, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”—the same, it seems, is true of self-righteousness. Tabloid uses the more respectable and respectful auspices of the documentary form to allow us the guilty fun of following a salacious story.

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