‘Tabloid’ offers brilliant story about storytelling

August 9, 2011

With Tabloid documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Errol Morris focuses his lens on a 1970s-era beauty queen whose delusions of love made for salacious fodder in the British scandal sheets. It was irresistible: the alleged kidnap and rape of the Mormon object of her affection, an underground career in the S&M business, and a return to the pages of the tabloids for a story about the cloning of the only thing she had left to love: her pet pit bull.

In the brisk documentary (87 min.) former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney sees things a certain way and holds steadfast in her perspective. She says she loved a man once: Kirk Anderson. He happened to be a Mormon who she tried to save from what she called his “indoctrination” at a London-based temple, in 1977.  She says she rescued him, and they spent several days of bliss together in a cottage in the English countryside, giving him back rubs, feeding him his favorite foods, like chocolate cake, and making love to him. She blamed  Mormonism for Anderson’s impotence and felt a duty to make love to him. “If it took  giving up my virginity in a romantic moonlit cottage, so be it. I just wanted him out of that cult.”

She says she had hoped to have his children. But word got out Anderson had gone missing, and McKinney was jailed for rape and kidnapping. She skipped bail and returned to the US but never got over the 6-foot, 300-pound-plus Anderson. “I never got married because of him.”

After the scandal died down, Morris offers a sad portrait of McKinney growing old in seclusion, suffering agoraphobia and failing to complete her life’s story, a book she had titled A Very Special Love Story. Paranoid that the press was still after her, she adopted a mastiff to guard her home, which turned on her. She says another pet dog, a pit bull she rescued off the street she named Booger saved her life from the mastiff. When Booger passes away from cancer many years later, McKinney gets over her grief by finally finding a sense of maternal bliss after cloning him in 2006. “We’re pregnant!” The cloning, which she paid to have done in South Korea, saw her return as a subject of the tabloids. However, at the beginning of the news coverage, she would keep the sex scandal out of the story by adopting an alias.

But the other version of this story comes mostly from two journalists from competing UK tabloids: “The Daily Express” reporter Peter Tory and “the Daily Mirror” photographer Kent Gavin. Tory talks about McKinney as a woman set on dominating men. He says, she, with the help of an accomplice, actually kidnapped Anderson and shackled him to a bed at the cottage with chain or rope, forcing him to become her sex slave. Gavin uncovered her past as a call girl and model who offered bondage and dominance or S&M services, prior to her London trip.

The two men share an ironic laugh over McKinney’s dishing out as much as $150,000 to clone her dog. When she made the media rounds with the pups, she used her middle name: Bernann as a first name. In her interview with Morris, she even says Joyce McKinney no longer existed.

With Tabloid, Morris makes efforts to point out the impossibility of documenting the so-called truth, to almost giddy effect. The film becomes nothing more than a variety perspectives by varied interests, as many documents on both sides of the story seem to have been lost. But this is as much about McKinney’s version of a story, as it is a representation of it by tabloid journalists. The differences between the interviews McKinney granted exclusively to “the Daily Express” in 1978 and the background published by “the Daily Mirror” based on investigative research, also offer their own extreme differences. “We became her fantasy,” Tory says. One layer after another reveals itself as just another different story about different people.

Another version of the story comes from Salt Lake City Radio Host and former Mormon missionary Troy Williams who speaks of the cautionary tale of “Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.” As an already highly interpretive story, Williams says, there is an important lesson in the tale for young Mormons on their mission to beware a temptress, such as McKinney, who might strip them of the magic underwear to take away their purity. McKinney offers the most salient point when she says, “You know, you can tell a lie long enough till you believe it.” Though it was a criticism of “the Mirror,” this statement could very well apply to herself, as well as anyone else trying to recount her story.

Morris does not so much take the stories seriously, as he presents his own version, which reveals one can never know for certain what has happened at any time, when it comes to hindsight (so often described as 20/20). Morris can be heard of camera exclaiming over certain answers with incredulous questions: “You mean she wanted him to inseminate her?” Morris juxtaposes several bits of narrative provided by the sources with ironic footage of fifties-era suburban bliss or cartoons. The director also offers images of the actual news clips from published articles of McKinney’s story cut up and animated in a collage form to augment some of the narrative. This again, smartly drives home the point that any story can be manipulated by the storyteller.

In between these widely varying stories, not based so much on fact as they are “accounts,” remain the mysterious gaps. In his interview, Tory introduces her accomplice,  Keith “KJ” May as “this strange, unexplained man.” Tory notes observing McKinney telling May, “Down, slave!” during their interviews and meetings. Tory theorizes the two have a long-standing master-slave relationship. May passed away a few years ago, so he could not offer any insight into his relationship with McKinney.

Interpret what you will of these references. That’s what makes Tabloid such a wonderful movie: it presents you with information that leads only to suspicion, as what Morris is really pointing to is the fact that no one can know the whole truth about anything, least of all know what really happened among so many versions of a story. As Tory notes, somewhere in between the stories lies the truth. The gaps, however, are so wide, one will never know what really happened. Some might find this frustrating, but I find it’s a more accurate truth of the life experience than most films dare explore.

Hans Morgenstern

The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener copy of this movie for review. Tabloid is rated R and will have its South Florida Premiere at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, Aug. 12 at 5 p.m. The Miami Beach Cinematheque will also screen the movie beginning Friday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. For screening dates in other areas, check the movie’s homepage at the top of this post.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

5 Responses to “‘Tabloid’ offers brilliant story about storytelling”

  1. politipond Says:

    Thanks Hans for this excellent review!
    Tabloid is on my must-watch list!

  2. Ana Says:

    I actually enjoyed this film. I thought she was intriguing…

  3. JoyceMcKinneySupporters Says:

    Joyce McKinney is innocent!! Yes, I am her friend, a true one. No more slander, please.

    • Hans Says:

      I can appreciate your defense of your friend. It’s a long review that focuses on one perspective of the McKinney’s story, but if you continue reading. You will see that it is an examination of several stories. Her story (as she is interviewed for it), the journalists’ stories and the director’s story. Somewhere deep in the review, I write, “Morris does not so much take the stories seriously, as he presents his own version, which reveals one can never know for certain what has happened at any time, when it comes to hindsight.” If there is slander, this is not out the film nor this reviews concerns itself. The truth is an illusion.


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