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Movie review: 'Tabloid' an irresistable documentary from Errol Morris

Posted: October 19, 2011 - 11:00pm

“Tabloid” is tabloid journalism with a difference. The Errol Morris difference.

Though his most recent documentaries (the Abu Ghraib exposé “Standard Operating Procedure” and the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War”) have featured weighty subject matter, Morris has always had a weakness for the wilder shores of human psychology, for the odd and eccentric patterns of personal behavior, the odder the better. In Joyce McKinney, he has very much met his match.

A cheerful, bubbly woman with a forthright manner and an inexhaustible willingness to talk, McKinney was the central figure in one of the great tabloid newspaper yarns of the 1970s, the infamous “Case of the Manacled Mormon,” a tale so irresistible that, as one observer accurately remembers, “the British Isles were on fire with this story.”

But Morris being Morris, the thoroughly entertaining “Tabloid” has more on its mind than unfolding a story so astonishing that you really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Questions about the nature of reality, what it is and to what extent it is knowable, are never far from this documentary’s understandable fascination with the power and price of media celebrity.

Morris uses tabloid-style visual elements to help tell his story, introducing clips from vintage movies and television and periodically filling the screen with words such as “Impotence,” “Guilt” and “Object of Desire” tricked out in large and gaudy type.

The heart of “Tabloid,” however, is Morris’ extensive interviews, conversations periodically punctuated by incredulous questions posed by the filmmaker himself as the story takes turn after eye-widening turn.

Making all the unusual events sound completely plausible is McKinney herself, first introduced in circa-1984 footage reading from her memoir of the celebrated events, “Once Upon a Time.” A compelling witness, albeit one given to unapologetic self-dramatization, McKinney turns out to be a hard person to disbelieve, no matter what the film’s other witnesses have to say.

An attractive native of North Carolina with the drawl to prove it, McKinney gravitated toward beauty pageants, in part because they gave her a chance to perform. She was a former Miss Wyoming who moved to Utah “looking for husband material” and felt she’d found it when she met Kirk Anderson, a quiet young man of the Mormon faith.

One day, as McKinney tells it, the man of her dreams simply evaporated. It turned out he was in England, sent out to do business-as-usual missionary work for the church, but as McKinney saw it, “this powerful group had done something to the man I love … I just wanted him out of that cult.”

What then begins is an obsessive quest to find and free Anderson that involves an unusual group of helpers, including bodyguards recruited from Gold’s Gym and flown to England by pilot Jackson Shaw, tracked down by Morris and still a bit flabbergasted by the nature of this long-ago adventure.

No one disputes that McKinney found her man and spirited him away to a rural love cottage, but everything else about the situation is open to argument. Except where the British police were concerned. “They threw me in prison and acted like I’m a criminal,” McKinney accurately reports. “It’s not a porno story, it’s a love story.”

Unusual as McKinney’s tale may sound up to now, it is far from the end of things. As recounted by a pair of British journalists, Peter Tory of the Daily Express and Kent Gavin of the Mirror, this woman’s story has more lives than a cat. There’s even an epilogue about another kind of animal that seems like it can’t possibly be true but is.

To Joyce McKinney, it seems obvious: Life has always been a movie starring herself. As “Tabloid” convincingly proves, she deserves every minute of center stage.

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