Saturday, July 16, 2011


Spirit Of '77: Three Days Of The (Manacled) Mormon

Headlines from various British tabloid newspapers in 1977 pertaining to Joyce McKinney's adventures in the infamous "Manacled Mormon" case in England. 
IFC Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 16, 2011

Sexy, sordid and sensational, "Tabloid" has a fascinating real-life story at its center: a high-I.Q. beauty queen from Wyoming, aided by a male friend, kidnaps Kirk Anderson, a shy, Mormon man she's obsessed with, taking him from Surrey to Devon, England, where either: she has sex with him while he's manacled, or, she rapes him while he's manacled.  This story exploded in England and around the world in 1977, with newspapers in London eating up the high-I.Q. McKinney's every move. 

Errol Morris's new documentary "Tabloid", released in select U.S. cities yesterday, is packed with wit.  Mr. Morris came across an article he was reading about dog-cloning that formed the nature of "Tabloid", which is part-satire, part-comedy, part-corrupted fairy tale, part-horror story and part-farce.

Obsession is a powerful character if not an aphrodisiac in "Tabloid" and fuels two entities: Ms. McKinney, a charming, appealing and gregarious person who won Miss Wyoming in the Sixties, and the British tabloid newspapers, vipers who relentlessly clawed at her.  Together their symbiotic relationship made for a partnership in fame, frenzy and global fanaticism, an early precedent of cat-and-mouse chase that is now commonplace in today's fast-food media-celebrity culture.  (The Mormon Church also got a higher, if not unwanted profile thanks to Mr. Anderson's position in this fantastical adventure.)

As a documentary "Tabloid" represents something distinct and unique from Mr. Morris.  It feels like a tongue-in-cheek parody of some of his earlier work.  The film shares the same interview backdrop as "Standard Operating Procedure" (2008), a far more somber and serious enterprise but its rhythm and delivery as narrative isn't so  different.  "Tabloid" aims for your heart like an arrow that Cupid shot.  Edits sometimes sound like clicks of a camera or its bulb flashes.  There's something crude and unruly about how headline graphics are splashed onto the screen.  This bit of style is a clever, effectively jarring touch. 

One of the year's best films, "Tabloid" is wicked, adorable and disturbing in its own casual, breezy way.  The film comes at you with a jaunty, playful and creepy detachment.  It fuses order, neatness and a notion of safety and disrupts it rigorously.  The sanctity of church and wholesome beauty queen image are punctured.  Fame protocol is upended.  Sex and allure are exposed and laid bare naked for all to see.  Yet "Tabloid" isn't a celebration of the bizarre or a nostalgic look at what bizarre is.  "Tabloid" is a conundrum of comedy, curiosity and craziness.  The film is persuasive mostly as a classic Rashomon-like whodunnit or more precisely, a did-she-or-didn't she?, vis-a-vis Mr. Anderson.

The McKinney case took place 34 years ago but as chronicled by Mr. Morris it remains fresh and contemporary for a new generation.  In 1977 the sex and/or rape angles of the story scared and troubled some men -- the idea a woman could possess such power.  The innate sexism and fear among some men galvanized and flavored an ever-more twisted story, as well as a perception of Ms. McKinney as a personality that the director of such documentaries as "The Thin Blue Line" enhances but doesn't indict.

Joyce McKinney in earlier years during Errol Morris's new documentary "Tabloid".  IFC Films

Facts like those presented and disputed in "Tabloid" got laughed at in some quarters, especially among men at the time, maybe laughed at nervously.

What is ironic is that the McKinney affair -- which gets progressively stranger yet more endearing in "Tabloid" -- took place in a more adult and sexualized climate in England than today.  At the time newspapers in England (notably The Sun) published photos of topless women on its page three, but papers like the Daily Mirror -- regarded as a trashier vehicle than the more conservative Sun in the 1960s and early 1970s -- and the more staid Daily Express put up their dukes over McKinney and her story, in a precursor to the now-relatively respected outfits National Inquirer and TMZ, who often get to news faster than much of the broadsheet papers in England and the U.S.

With the recent demise of the "redtop" tabloid News Of The World, the timely release "Tabloid" is (as Mr. Morris has said) about a lot of things.  For me the film is in part about how a newspaper industry compartmentalizes personality and truncates it with headlines.  Mr. Morris, if anything, is the film's biggest journalist, and he tries to fill in the gaps to round out Ms. McKinney beyond her own infamous headlines.

Is Ms. McKinney a con artist?  A lonely heart?  An unabashed romantic?  Or stark-raving bonkers?  She's certainly a relaxed figure in her interview pieces with Mr. Morris during the film, making you wonder: are we seeing Ms. McKinney as she really is or is she putting on a persona?  The more open Ms. McKinney is in recalling her yearning for Mr. Anderson the more distant, isolated and sad she seems.

What "Tabloid" does, and does spectacularly, is chronicle the meaning of fame, and how fame is staged, depicted and packaged.  I think in the end the legend of the so-called Manacled Mormon affair overtook the media itself, and while Ms. McKinney may not be as adept and polished at styling her own fame the way some do today she's entertaining and refreshing, an instant likable.

Above all, Mr. Morris's "Tabloid" plays like a splendid optical illusion.  It's hypnotic, compulsive viewing.  The story of a sex-salivating, voyeuristic press and an idiosyncratic woman who hid from fame while embracing it looks like a train wreck but it's Errol Morris's spectacular train wreck, and it works.

"Tabloid" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and nudity.  The film's running time is one hour and 28 minutes.

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