Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Truth Be Told: TABLOID

The most important thing to know about Tabloid, the fascinating new film from master documentarian Errol Morris, is that a great deal of the story comes straight out of the mouth of a crazy person. Maybe that’s unfair. Joyce McKinney is a convincing storyteller, spinning wild yarns of such impossibly convoluted and blatantly unbelievable intensity with such a clear eyed, somewhat coherent matter-of-factness that you can’t help but think that she really must believe the words that are coming out of her mouth. Morris sits her in front of a camera to spin these stories, these crazed stories composed of truths, half-truths, embellishments, and flat-out lies. Her wide eyes and bright blond hair frame a fairly honest looking face. And yet everything she says, no matter how tempting it may be from time to time to believe her, is unbelievable.

What, exactly, is the nature of the story that she tells? Well, this former Miss Wyoming was a tabloid figure of some repute in England back in the late 1970’s. As she tells it, the events that put her there is simply a love story. In California, she fell in love with a young Mormon named Kirk Anderson. She says it was love at first sight that developed into a love-against-all-odds relationship since his mother disapproved. Then, one day, he disappeared. The only logical explanation in Joyce’s mind is that the Mormons kidnapped him. (In actuality, he was serving out his time as a missionary, as all young Mormon men do).  After some low-level investigation, she discovered the love of her life living in England. She simply had to get him back.

This is the part that starts to get crazy. She hires a few big, strong guys to fly with her to England, drive out to the church and steal Kirk away from the Mormons. After snatching him in broad daylight from in front of a church, she kept him chained up in a cottage for days. This “love story” is a case of kidnapping, imprisonment and sexual assault. It was a missing persons case. When she finally let her prisoner go, she was arrested, but, with her co-conspirators, she jumped bail and fled the country. British tabloids, in the meantime, were exploding with reports of Joyce McKinney and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.” Then, things get crazier.

While Morris includes interviews with experts who can provide sanity and clear-eyed analysis, including reporters, photographers, and writers for the tabloids who were researching Joyce and the wild scandal that seemed to follow her and continually unfolded wherever she went for years, the most compelling material is whatever Joyce is telling us. It’s clear that we’re not always getting the truth from her, but how much can we trust the others? At one point, a tabloid reporter mentions that the missionary was never “chained,” he was merely tied up. But, he confides, “chained sounds better.”

Will we ever know for a fact what went on in that cottage? No. Will we ever know the full truth about this scandal? No. But this isn’t a film that is interested in getting to the truth in that way. This is a kaleidoscopic Rashomon of a documentary that spins into a crazed conspiratorial frenzy right along with its central subject. Only Morris’s clear-eyed, cleanly framed approach, cheeky titles, and methodical pace keep things on an even keel. What I know for sure is that Joyce McKinney cannot be believed. Her version of the events must be taken with copious amounts of salt and the version the more impartial experts help illuminate strikes me as more convincing, more clearly close to the truth. But what is undeniable is the ferocity of McKinney’s likability.  There’s a reason Morris gives her so much time to talk; she’s just plain fun to listen to. She may be speaking out of some kind of jumble of truth, embellishment and delusion, but she sure is fascinating and entertaining.

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