Director: Errol Morris
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In a press release for Sundance Selects, which has picked up his latest film for exhibition, Errol Morris is quoted as saying, “Tabloid is a return to my favorite genre—sick, sad, and funny—but of course, it’s more than that. It is a meditation on how we are shaped by the media and even more powerfully, by ourselves. Joyce is a woman profoundly influenced by her dreams and, in a sense, she was living in a movie long before she came to star in my film.”
I certainly think Morris conceptualizes his films with the intent of ascribing a larger sociological meaning to them, but I’m not always sure he does it before the fact. It seems to me that Morris is irresistibly attracted to self-justifying creeps and sideshow acts, intentionally looking for the oddities and monsters in society like a Diane Arbus crossed with P. T. Barnum. Like an actor who develops sympathy for an unlikeable character he must play, Morris assumes an emotional largesse toward his films’ stars that creates a self-justification for what he is doing. There was really no need for him to help Robert McNamara on his image-rehabilitation tour—anyone who saw the interview Charlie Rose did with McNamara shortly before the release of Morris’ Oscar-winning film The Fog of War (2003) saw the same act by the former Secretary of Defense as the one he put on for Morris. Perhaps the righting of a wrong he accomplished with his early film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), has been more of an albatross to him than anyone would care to think. Otherwise, he might feel free simply to indulge his curiosity without trying to ascribe more significance to it than that.
His latest found object is Joyce McKinney, who transfixed the British public in 1977 when her obsessive love for a Mormon named Kirk Anderson led her into trouble with the law and tabloid stardom. McKinney, a former beauty pageant contestant from North Carolina and a drama student, met Anderson in Salt Lake City when they were both 19 and says they fell deeply in love and wanted to marry. His parents disapproved of her, and one day, Kirk vanished into thin air, according to Joyce—she seemingly insists that he literally became a wisp of smoke, implying the evil cult powers of the Mormon Church. She moved to Los Angeles to make some money as a model so she could afford to hire a private detective. The P.I. traced Kirk to London, where he was doing his obligatory two-year missionary work. Plucky Joyce cajoled three men—one by wearing a see-through blouse without a bra—to come with her to find Kirk and deprogram him so that she could have her happy ending. Instead, Kirk accused her of kidnapping him, shackling him to a bed, and raping him repeatedly in a small cottage in Devonshire.
Despite the great many innovations Morris has brought to documentary filmmaking, including reenactments, the interrotron, and the perfection of the g-roll, he falls back heavily on talking heads to tell this story. He interviews two British journalists who were working on the story for rival newspapers—Peter Tory from the Daily Express and photojournalist Kent Gavin of the Daily Mirror—who approached the story once McKinney had jumped bail and fled back to the United States in quite different ways. Tory recounted McKinney’s various escape disguises, from dressing like a nun to pretending to be a deaf-mute, and pictured her as a lovably crazy woman in love, the woman who would “ski down Mt. Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose” if Anderson had asked her to. Gavin, on the other hand, got to Angeleno Steve Moskowitz, a man carrying a torch for McKinney, who revealed how Joyce allegedly made all the money she needed—pornography and prostitution. The rivalry certainly made for some interesting insights, but by now, revelations of ever-present paparazzi, nude photos in British tabloids, paying people for information, and such, isn’t exactly earthshaking information.
Visually, Morris enlivens the proceedings with animations that show McKinney’s movements in England. He bring in a young former Mormon who tries to give a psychological profile of Anderson and what he would have been feeling if he had, indeed, had premarital sex, but this is like offering an expert witness in a trial who has never met the victim. Morris inserts footage from old TV shows and movies, for example, showing Celia Johnson seeing Trevor Howard off from a train platform in Brief Encounter (1945) to parallel McKinney’s story of seeing Anderson off, expecting to meet him in London to be married, only to be arrested instead. These devices seem to be used for comic effect and to try to make a parallel between staged drama and McKinney’s real-life and largely self-created drama.
Of course, the star, Joyce McKinney is interviewed extensively. She has a flair for telling a story and knows how to turn a phrase. Referring to Anderson’s impotence (typed out in bold letters across the screen as she talks) at first, she says it’s like trying to “insert a marshmallow into a parking meter.” Her manic energy starts off charming and ends up making one want to bash one’s head against a wall; I imagine this is how the pretty, young Joyce had so many men running at her heels. The combination of pretty, sexy, and crazy is a potent aphrodisiac. It’s also extremely unpleasant to experience for any length of time, and despite Joyce’s apparent willingness to have anyone pay attention to her, consummate narcissist that she appears to be, the film borders on exploitation.
That Joyce is telling a string of lies, or maybe a lot of self-delusions mixed with lies, is almost certain, particularly when she denies the Mirror’s story on her L.A. past when it was in possession of almost 1,000 photos of her. Her hopeless romanticism seems a bit tragic, but her willingness to act on it is pretty scary. She claims to have remained celibate since her Devonshire “honeymoon” with Anderson. When the only love in her life after Kirk—her pit bull Booger—dies, she pays a South Korean scientist $150,000 to have him cloned. She briefly moves back into the spotlight for this action, but it does truly seem that she’ll be happiest on her own playing with Booger-McKinney, Booger-Lee, Booger-Ra, Booger-Hong, and Booger-Park, out of the public eye. Let’s hope she stays there.