Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: N/A
Starring: Joyce McKinney, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin and Jackson Shaw
Tabloid is what you would expect from an Errol Morris documentary, which is the unexpected. With a career that includes films about a former Secretary of Defense, a Holocaust denier and a pet cemetery, it’s impossible to know what his lens will focus on next.
In this latest endeavor, he fixates on Joyce McKinney, a woman who was hounded by the British paparazzi in the 70s after a kidnapping scandal with her Mormon boyfriend. Morris tells this story largely through talking head interviews with McKinney and members of the tabloids who covered her from various angles. To simply say that it is a wildly entertaining film would ironically be to sell it short of its purpose, which is to deconstruct the entire idea of entertainment.
McKinney’s story is presented as an enigma, one with no clear resolution and much speculation. At the basic level it is the story of a woman who travels to London with two bodyguards and a pilot and attempts to “rescue” Kirk, her lover who mysteriously disappeared one day. Kirk is a Mormon, and the way McKinney tells it, she was saving him from a cult when she tied him to a bed and had sex with him for three days. She claims that when she sent Kirk back to tell the Mormon hierarchy that he was in love, that they re-brainwashed him and forced him back into “the cult.”
Let’s pause here to examine just how bizarre all of this is. If ever there was a poster child for the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction,” it would be Tabloid. Following that insane escapade in Britain, McKinney is caught by the police and put on trial, prompting an immense national interest.
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, Joyce McKinney’s story seems like an archive of a time when people had time to care about such things for more than a couple days. She was hounded by the press for almost the entirety of 1977. They dug into her call girl past, posted nude photos of her on the front page (which she claims are Photoshopped) and bribed acquaintances for dirt.
The key to all of this, is that we in the audience can never be sure who to actually believe. Joyce’s photographs as well as the photographs from The Daily Mirror, the gossip paper that most ruthlessly hounded her, were either stolen or “misplaced.” As with many modern documentaries (Exit Through the Gift Shop being a the most recent and prevalent example), truth is not the point here. Tabloid is not about its events, as engaging as they are to watch. It is part historical documentary (though with none of the elaborateness of a Ken Burns endeavor) and part comment on the news industry. Morris is not out to vindicate McKinney, who is clearly troubled no matter how high her IQ is (168). This is a documentary about what it means to document. If neither McKinney nor the gossip columns can produce evidence that their version of this story is true, then what does it matter? More importantly, does the truth ever matter in stories like this?
The talking head interviews are organized in such a way that they do not favor one side over the other. Morris constructs this as two parallel retellings of the same event, interspersing humorous footage of a Mormon recruitment cartoon, 50s sitcoms and actual news footage. He either shrinks the frame or films an old TV with that footage on it to further distance it from the interviews.
McKinney is a live-wire even today. Her interview portions take up most of the time, as she is the central character even if she’s not fully telling the truth. We follow her through the scandal to her days of agoraphobia and through to an even more bizarre scenario where she has her dead dog cloned in South Korea. She tried to hide her identity when that story broke, but she was inevitably discovered.
All of the interviews are shot against the same mixed gray background, which keeps us focused solely on the retelling of the events. It’s not an intensely emotional experience as you’d find with more harrowing subject matter, but McKinney is a character of great pathos despite how deceptive she can be. She comes off as someone who did something stupid out of love, and spent the rest of her life paying for it.
Tabloid is not a revolutionary documentary in its narrative, though talking head history documentarys are rarely this bizarre. Morris crafts the story from the perspective of someone who is deeply fascinated by this forgotten cautionary tale, and he transfers that interest through the non-stop motion of his filmmaking. Tabloid never feels stagnate or even that dated. Morris doesn’t believe in objective truth in documentary, and here he’s found a story where not only would it be impossible to achieve, but it doesn’t matter at all. It’s a wildly original story that already happened.