Errol Morris’s latest film, Tabloid, doesn’t tackle the major themes of war and torture that his previous efforts, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, investigated. Instead, he turns his eye toward the cult of celebrity through the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 followed her Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson to England, where he was doing missionary work, in order to rescue him from what she believed to be his religious “cult.” Depending on who is telling the story (McKinney, her associates, tabloid reporters) what happened next is either a beautiful, tragic love story or a lurid tale of kidnapping and sex. Essentially, McKinney appears to have taken Kirk (perhaps forcibly) to the English countryside for a weekend and attempted to “save” him by tying him to a bed and having sex with him for several days. When they returned to London, McKinney was arrested and eventually fled back to America.
It’s an incredibly stupid story, actually. The film makes some jabs at the expense of the Mormon Church, and there are increasingly disturbing confessions from the male interviewees about how attracted they all were to McKinney, but large social issues of religion or gender aren’t explored or elaborated on. Instead, Morris is interested in the media’s reaction to the McKinney case. Warring tabloids turned it into the tale of the “Manacled Mormon,” and spent a lot of money to track down dirt on McKinney in the United States. They claimed to have found nude photos of McKinney working as a call girl, though the undoctored negatives have mysteriously vanished in the intervening years. (McKinney also claims to have evidence that would exonerate her, but it too was conveniently stolen shortly before the documentary was made.) The story keeps getting stranger and more bizarre, right up to 2008, when McKinney travels to Korea to clone her dead dog Booger.
The film feels familiar because every tabloid or celebrity story of the past 30 years has followed the exact same outline: Some bizarre criminal or public behavior is exasperated by the eccentricity of the principle characters involved. This is followed by the characters (and “characters” is really the best way to think of any person in a tabloid story) doing something even more bizarre. The story grows and the characters try to take control of the media narrative by writing a book or selling their side of events, though this never works to their satisfaction. Eventually people start to wonder, “Why is this person famous? What kind of society are we living in? This is ridiculous!” The characters’ stars fade, the tabloids move on, but every few years they pop up again for another brief moment in the spotlight.
Morris is never explicit about this process, but it’s embedded in the structure of his film. He doesn’t offer commentary as much as watch the circus unfold. This isn’t much different, really, than how he filmed and edited The Fog of War, but at least in that case the subject matter—the Cold War, Vietnam—was of obvious importance. In Tabloid, the audience still becomes implicated and emotionally involved, but they aren’t given any time to reflect on why they’re so involved. The whole thing, though as well-crafted as any Morris film, leaves the viewer ultimately feeling like they’ve wasted their time for such a strange, nonsensical story. The only way to truly appreciate Tabloid is as a meta-commentary on our tabloid culture, which works by enacting and becoming that very culture. “What a strange, bizarre story,” you might say while leaving the theater, “and did you hear about Charlie Sheen?”
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.