Errol Morris' Tabloid reviewed: domination porn, cloned puppies, Mormons.

Errol Morris' Tabloid reviewed: domination porn, cloned puppies, Mormons.

Errol Morris' Tabloid reviewed: domination porn, cloned puppies, Mormons.

Reviews of the latest films.
July 14 2011 6:06 PM

Domination Porn, Cloned Puppies, Mormons

The incredible story of Joyce McKinney in Errol Morris' Tabloid.

Tabloid movie poster.

Errol Morris' brisk 88-minute documentary Tabloid (IFC Films) can be watched as a meditation on celebrity journalism, erotic obsession, and the inherent unreliability of the narrative voice. Or it can be gawked at as a sexy, sordid, sometimes hilarious freak show. To Morris' credit, the film seems to invite and welcome both modes of viewing. Most of us will probably toggle between one and the other: "Hmm, juxtaposing that image with that audio clip was an unusual aesthetic choice. … She did WHAT?"

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate’s movie critic.

"She" is Joyce McKinney, a blond, zaftig onetime Miss Wyoming with a self-reported IQ of 168 who recounts a life straight out of a true-crime novel with evident pleasure and pride. In 1977, McKinney was at the center of a scandal recalled in U.K. tabloid lore as the "manacled Mormon" affair. When Kirk Anderson, a young Utah man with whom she'd fallen madly in love, left her to attend Mormon missionary training in England, McKinney flew across the ocean in a private plane with her fake-gun-toting bodyguard, picked up Anderson outside a Mormon meetinghouse in Surrey, and drove with him to a cottage in the county of Devon, where the two had sex for three days. * That much is undisputed—but was the Devon interlude an idyll or an abduction? Was Anderson, as he later claimed, manacled spread-eagle to a bed and forced to have sex with McKinney, or was he (as she fondly recalls) lovingly plied into amorous submission with homemade fried chicken and "cinnamon-oil backrubs"?

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The manacled-Mormon story is refracted at us principally from McKinney's point of view (which is at once evidently delusional and curiously winning). But there are other talking heads on hand to offer divergent retellings of the same events, including Peter Tory, the gossip reporter who covered the story for the London Daily Express, and Troy Williams, a former Mormon who's now a gay activist. (Kirk Anderson himself, now married and living in Utah, declined to participate.) The subjects address Morris' Interrotron—a patented camera rig that allows a uniquely intimate sense of direct first-person address—accompanied by a blend of archival footage of the scandal, animated segments drawn in the style of biblical-tract illustrations, and old film clips.

The more self-dramatizing passages of McKinney's interviews are studded with clips of women from pulp melodramas, clutching their hair in horror. But McKinney is also capable of self-awareness and even self-mockery. "Thank God for all those years of drama school," she laughs, recalling how her pretrial hearing had a packed courtroom "laughing, crying, throwing spitballs at the Mormons." (A sample from her pull-quote-ready testimony: "I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose for the love of that man.")

The sensational details of McKinney's life succeed one another with dizzying speed and variety: In no particular order, they include bail-jumping, a suitcase full of wigs and disguises, bondage and domination porn, and cloned puppies. The printed words that flash up on the screen during interviews are sometimes blandly informative, sometimes cheeky ("I told them [the police] the truth," insists one interviewee, and the words THE TRUTH briefly superimpose themselves on his face.) The effect is playful but not glib. Morris has long been drawn to outliers and oddballs, and though he leaves McKinney plenty of rope to hang herself, he's also clearly agog at her sheer loony charisma. This woman may be a narcissist, a pathological liar, and (in Tory's words) "barking mad," but when it comes to spinning her own life story, she's Scheherazade.

Though the events Tabloid recounts took place in the pre-digital age (McKinney recalls fleeing England with 13 suitcases full of press clippings about herself, a nuisance no publicity-loving Kardashian will ever have to worry about), the film also functions as a kind of prehistory of modern celebrity culture and tabloid journalism. Had McKinney been born—or, in keeping with one of this film's more unpredictable late developments, cloned—a generation or two later, she would no doubt have found her place on the reality-show circuit. But Morris' multifaceted treatment of her bizarre biography is as much Rashomon as Octomom. Tabloid is the perfect movie for that night when you can't decide whether to see something low- or highbrow. It's seamlessly and satisfyingly both.

Correction, July 15, 2011: This article originally referred to Devon as a town. (Return to the corrected sentence.)