Wednesday, November 2, 2011

DVD Review: Tabloid

Tabloid ****
Directed by: Errol Morris.

Errol Morris is more interested in how people process reality – how they see themselves – than the objective truth. And he finds such fascinating subjects for his documentaries. From the people who run and patronize the pet cemetery in his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to the quartet of strange people trying to control the uncontrollable in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1996), to Fred A. Lechter in Mr. Death (1999), about a man who designed machines to put people to death, who was ostracized for being a Holocaust denier, what Morris really wants to know is how these people see themselves. He was criticized by some for The Fog of War, his Oscar winning 2003 documentary, about Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, for not providing more context. And again criticized for his Standard Operating Procedure (2006) about the Abu Ghrhaib prisoner abuse scandal, for concentrating on the grunts on the ground, rather than their higher ups. I didn’t share those views. Morris doesn’t need to provide context to the Vietnam War, which is well documented, and it is safe to assume anyone who wanted to see a movie about Robert McNamara knows enough about it to put what he says in context. And he hardly comes across very well in Morris’ movie. And if you want to see a movie that blames the Bush administration for its handling of the War on Terror, you have about 1,000 to choose from. What interested Morris in that film was the pictures themselves – why the soldiers did what they did, and why the photographed it.

His new film Tabloid may just be the most entertaining film he has ever made – and also one of the most maddening, as we never really feel like we’re getting the truth. This is Morris’ point, I think. He is more fascinated with how Joyce McKinney sees herself, and tells her story (and she is a great storyteller) then the whole truth, which will probably never be known because McKinney is the only one talking.

To hear McKinney tell it, she was just a regular, Southern Gal from North Carolina. A beauty queen – a contestant in Miss USA one year. She moves to Utah, and one day locks eyes on the love of her life Kirk Anderson. They fall madly in love, and plan to marry, even though his family disapproves of her. Then one day, Kirk simply vanishes. He doesn’t leave a note, he doesn’t call, he doesn’t take his stuff. He’s just gone. She hires of Private Investigator, who takes a few years to track Kirk down in England. McKinney hires a bodyguard and a pilot, and brings along her friend KJ May to England, where she convinces Kirk to leave the cult that has a hold of him, and whisks him away to a cottage in the English countryside for three days of “fun, food and sex”. She was still a virgin, but gave herself up to help poor Kirk, reeling from religious indoctrination. She ties him to the bed to help him relax. After a weekend that she describes as a honeymoon, they return to London to get legally married. They see a newspaper says Kirk has been kidnapped, so he sets off to set the record straight. The next thing Joyce knows, she’s been arrested for kidnapping and rape (which is ridiculous she says, a woman can’t rape a man it would be like “putting a marshmallow in a parking meter”). Kirk is back in the hands of his cult, and they are making him say all these terrible things about her. The tabloid press is all over this bizarre story, and Joyce has become the center of the universe.

Morris, of course, finds people who contradict McKinney’s story. Anderson was hardly the man of anyone’s dreams, but a hulking, pudgy man with little charm or personality. He didn’t belong to a cult, and he didn’t really disappear into thin air. He was a Mormon, who like all young Mormons, was sent to do his Mission work. The bodyguard McKinney brought to England bailed when they landed, because McKinney and May were hiding surveillance equipment. The pilot, Jackson Shaw (interviewed here) bailed when he discovers they are packing chloroform and fake gun. And of course, Anderson claimed he has drugged and taken to the cottage, where he was shackled to the bed and forced into having sexual intercourse with McKinney for three days.

You can see why this story so fascinated the Tabloid press in England, notoriously much worse than in America. The dubbed the “Manacled Mormon” case, and set about to find everything they could about McKinney – who seems to be loving the attention the case brings her. That is, until they unearth some not so flattering things about her, and then the Tabloids are horrid people, who do nothing but lie. McKinney spends much of her time in front on Morris’ famed Interrotron (a camera that shoots the interviewer looking directly into the camera, but also allows them to look Morris directly in the eye), denying all the stuff that was written about her. She has been working on an autobiography for years now, to set the record straight. Although it’s harder now because much of her documentation was stolen from her car. If you think that’s hard to believe, you also have to admit it’s just as hard to believe that the entire file containing the pornographic pictures of McKinney, that she claims were faked, also completely disappeared from the files of the Daily Mirror.

In his review, Roger Ebert mentioned Rashomon when talking about Tabloid and the comparison makes sense. I don’t believe that McKinney is lying when she tells her story. She believes every word she is saying. But is it the truth? We’ll never know. Three people were in that cottage – KJ May is dead, Kirk Anderson has never told his side of the story to anyone other than the police (and he refused Morris’ request for an interview). So that leaves Joyce McKinney, who is self aggrandizing, obsessed with her “crazy love story” with Kirk, and in the words of one of the reporters “barking mad”. She is also one of the fascinating people you will see in any movie this year.

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