Monday, August 22, 2011

Morris Makes a Tabloid, For Better and Worse



"DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk."

by James Hansen

Although it has been around since the 1820s, Mormonism seems to be having a cultural moment in 2011. There has been The Book of Mormon, which uses a Mormon mission to brilliantly situate musical theater as one of the world’s great religions, as well as Mitt Romney’s second-run for the presidency, again undercutting political debate with effervescent theology. Added to the list is Errol Morris’s new film Tabloid.


Tabloid documents the strange life story of Joyce McKinney. In the 1970s, the beauty queen McKinney moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon. After Kirk leaves the country for his Mormon mission – a brainwashing disappearance according to McKinney – she flies to England in order to save him from the Mormon cult. McKinney finds Kirk at which point they either have a lovely, sex-crazed honeymoon or McKinney kidnapped Kirk, chained him to a bed, and forced sex on his pure Mormon soul for three days. His planet doomed, word of the story got to the press. Shortly after, the story became a tabloid sensation.

Like much of Morris’s acclaimed work, Tabloid cycles around the key players in McKinney’s strange story. As different versions of facts appear from McKinney, her accomplices, and tabloid writers, it becomes clear that the sensational nature of the story is also what fascinates Morris. The whole situation is pitched as rather silly and perhaps rightfully so: the virginal beauty queen chasing down the crazy Mormon and ruining his mission to become a god. Morris’s film represents its own version of the tabloid: whizzing by with more and more details that get stranger and stranger as McKinney expounds on her love affair with Kirk. She, of course, never has a chance against Morris, as his film exposé turns into something of an entertaining hit piece, albeit one with a subject that is so consumed by her untruths that recovery of a sense of sanity appears long gone.


Yet, also like a tabloid, Morris’s film becomes increasingly entertaining just as it reveals itself as strangely shabby and devoid of serious consideration for its subject matter. Morris’s editing establishes an ironic banter with both Mormonism – an ex-missionary unrelated to the story details notorious aspects of the Mormon religion with an unkempt tie and frazzled hair – and Christianity via McKinney’s claims of chastity with God channelled through her star-crossed, brainwashed Mormon. But where is Kirk in all of this? An end credit states that Kirk refused to be interviewed. In the film’s latter stages, Tabloid strains through this non-presence. Rather than adding to some sort of mystery, Kirk is a distracting elephant in the room, a crucial element missing in action. DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk.


All the same, this may explain why Morris gives so much time not just to the Kirk story and its fallout, but also the rest of McKinney’s tabloid-filled life. For an invested audience, this is certainly fun and games. Nonetheless, the final third illustrates its fatuousness with an overwhelmingly tangential aside regarding McKinney’s extreme love for her dog, Booger. This makes it clear that Tabloid isn’t really a religious intervention, nor an encounter with versions of the truth. It is a Looney Tunes documentary of the living tabloid Joyce McKinney.

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