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A 'Tabloid' Tale: Errol Morris Pursues a Confounding Narrator

By Taylor Segrest

What happens to the narrative DNA of a movie once it's in your mind? Does it get decoded? Does it get cloned in the stories you tell? Or in the narrative structure of your own life story?

If you were engineering the marketing for Errol Morris' new documentary--or "anti-documentary," as he calls it--Tabloid, you might, not unlike the film's star, Joyce McKinney, once did, think that you were living a fairy tale in light of the media climate these days: The scandal-fueled death of 168-year-old British tabloid giant News of the World is making international headlines, while a recent Newsweek cover has declared this "The Mormon Moment." And to top it off, McKinney herself has found a new obsession: Tabloid. On a crusade to vindicate herself, she has flown to every festival she can and has called whoever might have interest; she sits in the audience shouting "LIAR!" at the screen, then announcing herself to the crowd at the most dramatic moment she can once the lights come up, as she recently told The New York Times.

The elements of the story are simple enough: In the 1970s, McKinney, a beauty queen with a 168 IQ, falls for Kirk Anderson, a Mormon with a Corvette. He soon vanishes from her life, seemingly to be "called on a mission" for the Church. And it's there that McKinney is called on a mission of her own, hiring a private detective to track down Anderson in England, flying there with a few cohorts to help track him down, abducting him away to a cottage and holding him as an eventually willing hostage for three days of sex. She becomes a cause célèbre-standing trial for kidnapping and rape while at the same time becoming the celebrated cover girl of a major British tabloid showdown: one portraying her as a saint, the other as a slut. From there, Joyce McKinney's story only gets more wildly unpredictable.

No one writing about Tabloid can seem to help themselves from indulging in the sensationalism of mentioning such things as a beauty queen, kidnapping, shackling a Mormon, rape, burning magic underwear, becoming a god with a planet, a wig called "Matilda," a marshmallow shoved into a parking meter, nun costumes, prostitution, bondage, S & M, the term "spreadeagled" and, of course, the cloning of a dog named Booger. Writers also tend to mention Rashomon, understandably, because the truth of what happened, whether in "the love cottage" or the media spotlight, remains prismatically elusive.

Documentary recently waxed philosophical with Morris about the strange terrains of Joyce McKinney, delusion, narrative and identity, in the context of this outlandish tabloid tale.


Joyce McKinney, star of Errol Morris' Tabloid, a Sundance Selects release.


Documentary: In a YouTube video of your Q & A for Tabloid at DOC NYC last fall, Joyce McKinney shouts out from the audience, then comes down and tells her reaction to the film --

Errol Morris: I invited her up on stage.


D: And you said, "This is what I always wanted." Can you elaborate on that?

EM: I never really wanted to exclude her from any of this. After all, it's a movie about her. Even if she doesn't like the movie or doesn't agree with a lot of the material, it's still a movie about her--and, dare I say it, what I consider to be a loving portrait of her. I like Joyce McKinney. And I think the movie at least captures a good part of her story. I suppose if she had been making the movie, she wouldn't have put any character in other than Joyce. She said, I believe on one occasion, that she was very disappointed that I used anyone else.

And she would have liked the movie to be an attack on the LDS Church. Well, I didn't want to do that. I believe Joyce in this respect: She was treated badly by the Church. But what role she played in it versus what role Kirk Anderson played in it, versus what role the Church played in it--I don't know, but I don't think the Church is completely innocent with respect to the demise of that love affair.


D: Do you think that Joyce McKinney appreciates and relishes the absurdity of her life experience, or is it more of a victim perspective?

EM: I'm not sure I can answer it because I think it's a combination of both. Joyce certainly sees herself as a victim, and she may very well be in some respect. But to me she seems in many ways a victim of herself and her own obsession. I admire her for her obsessions. After all, I like to think of myself as an obsessed person. But obsessions can lead you into some dark rabbit holes, and if you're really unlucky, unlike Alice, you never re-emerge.

When someone tells me, "Joyce is so crazy," I point out, "Well, no crazier than the men running around in this story in pursuit of Joyce." No crazier maybe than myself for making a movie about all of it. I'm willing to put myself in with the rest.

And Joyce is a person who spun a tale. The most powerful material [I had] was that strange film made by Trent Harris in the early 1980s of Joyce reading from her then-and-still unfinished novel [entitled Once Upon a Time, "a very special love story about how I met Kirk," Joyce says]. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Joyce McKinney and friend, at a London party, following her trial.




D: Before you became a filmmaker, you were a frustrated writer as well?

EM:  I certainly really identify with Joyce with respect to all that. I had trouble finishing what I was writing. I believe I made documentaries in part because of my enormous difficulties in writing. My stepfather, who really supported me over the years, desperately wanted me to write a book on The Thin Blue Line...and I couldn't do it. He actually wrote part of a book to show me how easy it might be. (laughs)


D: There's a documentary that came out about nine years ago called Stone Reader. In it, the filmmaker goes looking for the author of a lost masterpiece, his only novel, who himself has dropped off the radar, so to speak. After a long hunt he finds the writer living with his mother. Writing the novel decades before had exhausted him so thoroughly that he could never recover. He could passionately talk about his love of literature. He could comically appreciate the absurdity of his situation. But no matter how much he wished things were different, he couldn't recover. I couldn't help thinking about that with respect to Joyce McKinney. She kind of wrote this absurdist novel with her life.

EM: That's an excellent way to describe it.


D: Thinking about it like that made me more compassionate toward Joyce.

EM:  I like her. I feel more than compassionate that she's a true romantic, a dreamer.


D: And an adventurer.

EM: An absurd adventurer. I mean, the whole idea of putting together that group of men to go across the Atlantic and find Kirk Anderson is one of the truly amazing stories.


D: It's like she's offered a chance to invent this story, to take the stage--as if Joseph Campbell were looking at it. She finally has this challenge to rise to, at least in her own mind, a cause to call on her best resources. It's an epic adventure that, to hear her tell it, no one has properly understood or appreciated.

EM: I remember early on that someone said they thought this was a slight story, and I was surprised. If the issue is that it lacks the gravitas of the Cuban Missile Crisis-- McNamara waggling his finger and saying, "It's luck" that kept us from a nuclear apocalypse-then, yes, it's not that. I hadn't thought of it before you just mentioned it, but I agree: Whether it's a Joseph Campbell-like quest, or it's one more version of the hero with a thousand faces. It is a quest, a journey.


D: This seemed like a relatively linear film as it was unfolding, but what resulted in my mind after I watched it, was anything but linear. I have a sense of the relative order of who was where when, but in terms of what happened it still could have gone any number of ways. Above all, I was pretty convinced that no matter how many people who were involved talked about it, it wasn't going to get any clearer.

EM: I think that's a really pertinent and good observation. An interesting phenomenon fascinates me. Take The Thin Blue Line. As I spent two-and-a-half years investigating that case, there was a feeling of things falling into place. But there are other cases where you don't have that feeling of convergence; you have the feeling that there's never going to be any closure.

Something about documentaries became really clear to me in making this particular film: What makes documentary interesting to me is the fact that you don't know where you're going. You're at the mercy of the investigation, if anything. And I'm like Joyce; it's habit-forming. You get obsessed and you can't give it up. But there is something in this art form that can't be found elsewhere: the act of discovery, of coming up with something that you never could have constructed yourself.


D: The last time we spoke, you mentioned your keen awareness of objective truth versus narrative. Your personality and interests seem to permeate your films, but there is also this consistent theme of how you're organically arriving at the structure and even the substance of your movies. I don't see how you could explore and deconstruct that conflict except in what we call documentaries.

EM: Yes. I'm as excited as ever by documentary. It's a pure art form. And a lot of the issues that--I think you described it really, really well--a lot of the issues that obsess me, I don't know how else to describe it, really can't be addressed except in documentary. I will continue making them because I kind of love the medium. I don't know what I'd do without it.


D: And your subjects are often wrestling with that same thing in their own mind in terms of their personal narrative versus what's outside their mind --

EM: We all are. We all live in delusional worlds. Some of us more than others, but none of us live completely in reality. I'm not sure I would even know what that means. We construct a picture of the world for ourselves that may be at complete variance with reality. Call it the human condition.

My favorite line in the whole movie would be a toss-up between Joyce's "marshmallow in the parking meter'" argument for why she didn't rape Kirk Anderson and [journalist] Peter Torre's line that "I think it was ropes, but 'chains' sounds better." It captures the essence of the story: that we are constantly reconfiguring stories to make them pleasing or acceptable to ourselves.


Errol Morris, director/executive producer of Tabloid, a Sundance Seletcs release.


Tabloid opens July 15 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films.

Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker, and most recently wrote and co-produced the feature-length documentary Darwin (2011).