Errol Morris, “Tabloid” (2010)
Errol Morris’s documentaries fall into two camps: a serious one (“Fog of War”) and one of portraits of eccentric individuals dominated by their obsessions who often don’t realise they’ve transgressed the invisible boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. The focus of Morris’s scrutiny is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 became obsessed with a young man she met in Utah; the man, Kirk Anderson, began training as a missionary with the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ aka Mormons to escape her attentions and the Church sent him to England. McKinney pursued and kidnapped Anderson with the help of two men and imprisoned him in a cottage in southwestern England. The incident aroused (ahem) much interest throughout the UK with its combination of conservative religion and its strict morality as regards sexual relations, kidnapping and sexual bondage. McKinney was arrested and charged but managed to jump bail and escape back to the US. Although she and one of her accomplices were later arrested by the FBI, the English courts did not request her extradition and sentenced her in absentia to jail for a year. Two tabloid UK newspapers competed for sales with opposed views of McKinney’s antics and background based on information and material obtained in often shady ways.
McKinney is an entertaining and garrulous interviewee, bright and open to a fault. Her apparently guileless manner may well hide a calculating and shrewd mind intent on getting what she wants no matter what it takes or what obstacles are in her way. Morris’ Interrotron technique of interviewing subjects, in which McKinney looks into the camera which projects her face’s image onto a two-way mirror positioned in front of the lens of the camera facing Morris, and vice versa for Morris (he looks into his camera that projects his image to the mirror positioned in front of McKinney’s camera), ensures that viewers are hit with the full force of McKinney’s bubbling and sometimes overpowering personality but it also means that Morris himself ends up too close to his subject to be able to show a more objective view of her personality and character and the wider meaning of the 1977 kidnapping and the UK tabloid press’s involvement. At times Morris appears willing to be swept along by McKinney’s version of what happened and her insistence that Anderson was being brainwashed by a cult but the veteran interviewer never presses or challenges her opinion and prejudices.
Morris also interviews a former Mormon missionary who perhaps is the most objective and sane person in the whole film, and two journalists from the rival tabloids that salivated over McKinney and Anderson, each recounting the newspapers’ wildly differing versions of the incident and of McKinney’s character and defending their stories and research. Viewers see some of the conflicting opinions and views of two people in the British media towards the story: one is amused and nonplussed, the other is cynical and predatory. Unfortunately the two most significant male characters in the whole saga, Kirk Anderson and Keith Joseph May, are absent from the documentary: Anderson refused to be interviewed and May had already died, so any pretence at “balance” is precluded.
The film’s presentation milks the whole incident for laughs with insertions of tabloid-style title cards that introduce the interviewees and give something of the flavour of the news coverage of the time. Cartoons and cartoon montages help give a light-hearted and racy feel to the film. Towards the end, after the abduction and its consequences become history, the film slows down with the coverage of an unrelated incident that also attracted news attention: in 2008, when her pet dog died, McKinney had it cloned into a litter of puppies by researchers in South Korea.
Though the film is entertaining and sympathetic towards its subject, it missed an opportunity to examine McKinney’s upbringing in some detail, in particular the expectations and stereotypes she grew up with and absorbed which fed her beliefs about romantic love and marriage and encouraged her obsession with Anderson. In the end, these notions undid McKinney and derailed her life: she resolved never to love another man and became reclusive. That an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman with great drive and energy who lived for romance, marriage and a brood of many children gave up her dream completely is a tragedy that the film glosses over. Morris’s attempt at investigating the media hysteria and celebrity worship surrounding McKinney’s abduction of Anderson amounts to very little and says nothing about the kind of media culture that existed in the UK then and the social values that supported it. Perhaps Morris isn’t the best person to examine and appreciate the kind of society the UK was at the time. The best that “Tabloid” does is to show that the truth about the incident remains elusive and that people’s memories of it can be wildly different for many reasons, of which self-preservation is the primary one.