Sex, Lies, and Mormons Missionaries in Errol Morris's Fascinating 'Tabloid'

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The documentary examines the idea of truth—and delivers a rip-roaring, hilarious tale in the process

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Joyce McKinney, a North Carolina pageant queen with a genius IQ, called it "A Very Special Love Story." The British tabloids called it the "Sex in Chains Scandal" involving a "Manacled Mormon." The truth, as it always does, resides somewhere in the middle. In director Errol Morris's newest film Tabloid, which opens today, the renowned documentarian examines the life of a woman whose single-minded quest for true love would be splashed across the British newspapers as a story of bondage, brainwashing, and magic Mormon underwear. The result is a delirious and poignant reflection on the nature of scandal. 

In the late '70s, Joyce McKinney was a young model and beauty queen tooling around in a convertible with her giant sheepdog. When she met and fell in love with a young Mormon man named Kirk, her life seemed to move into place. Long before, she had determined never to settle for just any husband; she would have someone special. So when the apparent love of her life disappeared, she did what she felt any "red-blooded American girl," in her words, would do. She went after him. Flanked by a bodyguard and toting a trunk filled with handcuffs, wireless microphones, a toy gun, and a vial of chloroform, she flew to England determined to rescue her man from the clutches of the Mormon Church. The resulting three days of "Fun, Food, and Sex" (as one tabloid headline put it) would come to dominate the British scandal sheets and catapult McKinney into a dubious notoriety that would define her life for the next 30 years. 

Tabloid is something of a departure from Morris's recent documentaries, including the Oscar-winning Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and 2008's Standard Operating Procedure about the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. While the subject matter of Tabloid   is certainly more light-hearted than Morris's usual fare, the film absolutely bears his distinct imprint. In other words, it includes a cast of strange, quirky characters and examines a theme that can seem off-putting: his past work has tackled everything from pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven to Holocaust denial in Mr. Death.

Morris has previously referred to his films as "anti-documentaries" for their use of recreations and haunting soundtracks by the likes of Philip Glass and Danny Elfman. While Tabloid does not make use of any filmed recreations, Morris does highlight elements of the story with newspaper clippings and photographic collage. He emphasizes certain phrases as they are being spoken by splashing the written words across the screen in a carefully chosen font called "Impact." When I met with the director recently, he explained that the text was meant to help illustrate the question at the the core of Tabloid. "It's the essential problem of journalism," he said. " How do we trade narrative with truth?"

Incorporating Morris's masterful interview technique with found footage and the actual British tabloid newspaper pages, the film speeds along to a soundtrack of clacking typewriters and bursting flashbulbs. Its greatest pleasures are often guilty ones—the kinds of pleasures that make up the most sensational of scandals. 

McKinney herself is a prototypical Morris heroine, in the vein of Mr. Death's Fred Leuchter, or the obsessive subjects of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. She is a charming eccentric. In her sharp tongued Southern twang she spins out a tale of obsession and delusion just like your favorite wacky Aunty might after she's had one too many glasses of Chablis. But behind her wisecracks and warm smile, her story requires viewers to think deeply about their own self-delusions. As McKinney herself says at one point, "If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it."  She is the heroine of a drama set on the stage of her own life. Long after the cameras and paparazzi have forgotten her, she continues to pine for her one true love. Tabloid peels back the layers of this bizarre story to show us the truth behind the truth behind the truth. So which one should we believe? As Morris told me, "I mean it's all so...what's the technical term? So fucking weird."

In November of last year, Tabloid screened at the NYC DOC festival. When the film was over, McKinney herself emerged from the back of the theater and took the stage for the question and answer period. Dressed in sequins with a large pit bull at her side, she commandeered the flustered moderator's microphone and took the audience to task. "You're all laughing," she said. "But this isn't funny. It's my life." The audience, which had been cheering her every word, fell silent. Then somebody pointed out that McKinney's dog was urinating on the stage. She turned for a moment, the microphone was restored to the moderator, and the Q&A came to an abrupt end. 

In that moment, Joyce McKinney had stripped the audience of our anonymity. Suddenly we were more than viewers in a darkened theater. We had become participants in the drama of McKinney's life. It was an uncomfortable and strangely exhilarating feeling, exposing the mix of human vulnerability and weirdness at the heart of the film. I asked Morris about McKinney's take on her story. He laughed. Describing himself as a "Joyce enthusiast," he explained, "I think it's a loving portrait of Joyce. I really do. I think she emerges as a kind of truly crazy romantic figure. Women seem to like her a lot." 

Errol Morris has always asked moviegoers to look at his subjects in a different light. The loveable crackpots of Gates Of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are no less significant for him than Robert McNamara or the young soldiers documenting the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. And in the director's hands, the story of Joyce McKinney is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. Because the "truth" is that the two often occupy the same space— hilarity is not so different from tragedy; Joyce McKinney is not so different, after all, from the rest of us. 

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Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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