Errol Morris’s films have a sensationalist element at their core: people obsessed with their pets and pet cemeteries in his first feature, Gates of Heaven, the turkey hunters in Vernon, Florida, the Texas man wrongly accused and convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line, the portrait of execution device inventor and holocaust denier Mr Death: The Rise And Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., the self-rationalizations of former defense secretary Robert McNamara in Fog of War, American soldiers run amok at Iraq’s Abu Graib prison in Standard Operating Procedure.
If Morris thinks that Tabloid is his best film, it is because it is the most cinematic and the fastest-moving. Its subject --- the beauty queen Joyce McKinney – whose relationship with a missionary Kirk Anderson becomes the scandal known as “Mormon sex in chains case” –is certainly Tabloid fodder.
As the love-struck Joyce McKinney pursued Kirk, the Mormon missionary to England, she was arrested and charged with abducting him. Then the press accused her of chloroforming and raping Kirk Anderson, who she said was her fiancé. The case became the locus of a newspaper war between The Daily Express and Daily Mirror in London. In the film, McKinney says that her relationship with Anderson was a love story, and all she wanted to do was to reclaim him from brainwashing by Mormon Elders. Even today, McKinney thinks that the Mormon Church ruined her life.
Years later, McKinney continued her sensational saga by paying $25,000 to a Korean scientist to have her dead pit bull cloned in Korea. The result was five puppies.
What makes the films of Errol Morris, including Tabloid, interesting is not just their subject matter, but Morris’s approach. Morris’s take is ironic, voyeuristic and peels at the scabs of sordid reality to revel in the gap between how people are and how they see and represent themselves.
Just how visceral this disconnect between reality and perception can be, is demonstrated by the real Joyce McKinney’s reaction to Tabloid, the movie. She has virtually stalked various festival screenings of Tabloid, accused Morris of lying to her, and threatened to sue. The singular argument that emerges from her impassioned rhetoric seems to be that Morris falsely says McKinney raped her lover. As she states in one on-line blog response, Morris was not in the bedroom.
Joyce McKinney states that Morris tricked her into appearing in the film in the first place by representing the shoot as a non-existent Showtime series about paparazzi, and that her story, as Morris represents it in the film, is false. She says that the tabloid hoax, invented by the British tabloids in 1977, is based on false information propagated by the Mormons when McKinney tried to rescue her fiance, which led to her wrongful arrest. The film, McKinney charges, also promotes lies about her.
I would wager that the controversy over Tabloid, much like earlier controversy over The Thin Blue Line and, to a lesser extent, Fog of War is music to Errol Morris’s ears. The more blurred the shadowy line between truth and fiction becomes, the more Morris, the director, becomes the singular orchestrator of that reality. There is something brilliant and at the same time diabolical in his being able to provoke that tease, leaving the audience gasping for some sure footing in the ambiguity.
Morris’s defense would be, of course, that the scandal in Tabloid is just a story –a story that he, as a filmmaker, simply found fascinating. But every story, whether it pre-exists a film or not, needs a storyteller. Much like his vaunted “Interretron” interviewing technique – which uses technology to fool the interview subject into looking straight into the camera – Morris, the orchestrator of the shifting realities, hides in their shadow, leaving his audience breathless – and grasping for meaning…
Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.