Reality almost always reads more interesting than any fiction if you're willing to go deep enough. The absurdities and cruelties that befall people just like us are far more crazy and outlandish than anything that could be invented; if it's possible, then somewhere it's probably happened. Few filmmakers get this better than Errol Morris, who excels at unearthing flagrantly bizarre stories and suggesting labyrinthine webs of connection between subjects and events. The people he chooses to highlight are most often a little off themselves, but virtually always well-spoken, candid, and confident in their presentation of events. Morris' ability to so expertly navigate this grandiose, subterranean world allows us a rare glimpse of the truly unexpected; to return back to our average lives having stood on the precipice of something confounding but sublime. His latest film, "Tabloid," goes further than he's ever gone-it's fucked up and strange and funny beyond belief-but it also demonstrates, again, the illusory nature of "truth" and the radical power of self-conceptualization.
"Tabloid" spools out the flabbergasting story of Joyce McKinney circa 1976 through the early '90's. Growing up in Utah amidst very staunch religious values, McKinney's average high school misbehaviour was thought of as "bad girl" antics. One evening she met Kirk Anderson and immediately fell insanely, obsessively in love with him. Anderson was a Mormon but fell hard for McKinney, much to the chagrin of his very traditional parents who opposed the relationship. One day, Anderson simply disappeared. McKinney tracked him, at great expense, to London, where his parents had sent him to be fully indoctrinated into heavy traditional Mormon beliefs. Along with her deeply devoted friend Keith, McKinney chartered a private plane to fly them to London and retrieve Anderson from what McKinney categorized a cult. Abducting Anderson at gunpoint (with a fake gun), she and Keith took him to a cabin in the English countryside where she chained him to a bed and raped him repeatedly over a period of three days. McKinney described the "weekend" as a consensual honeymoon, a sort of "deprogramming" to bring Anderson back. Anderson thought differently; managing to escape during a town outing he later arranged for McKinney's capture and subsequent trial, resulting in a spotlight dance with the British tabloids that lasted for a number of years and made McKinney a bonafide celebrity akin to the Octomoms and Paris Hiltons of today.
The press ate McKinney up and she played it for everything it was worth, delighting in the attention (despite later protestations of the same) and courting the cameras as she traipsed across the London party scene. The trial left the constabulary and courts flabbergasted at the events she recounted, rendered even more unbelievable by the sheer candor and confidence with which McKinney recalled her actions. What McKinney called a honeymoon Anderson described drolly as three days of wide-eyed terror and emasculation, a befouling of his Mormon ideals that left him dangerously close to a lifetime of Satanic influence. Both parties detailed an extreme scenario existing at opposite ends; the majority of those involved in the events seem to recall the "truth" as being an amalgamation as both stories meeting somewhere nearer the middle of the recollections. Morris makes no judgment himself, preferring to let his cast tell their stories and the viewer to make her own assessment.
Those stories are the heart of "Tabloid," and they're very interesting. Aside from McKinney herself, Morris devotes considerable time to two London tabloid journalists, the pilot who flew McKinney and Keith to London, a Mormon missionary, and a Korean geneticist (more on that later.) All of them are extremely open, engaging, and funny. Each reveals layers to the story that confuse the issues at hand and obscure the actualities of the situation they're attempting to recall; Morris makes no attempt to steer the "facts" in any particular direction, nor does he feel compelled to condescend to us by categorizing McKinney's actions as "right" or "wrong." That question is truly blurred because the facts that eventually surface regarding McKinney's background suggest something more sinister may have been at work. On photo assignment for one of the London rags in Los Angeles, Kent Gavin describes the wealth of material he drudged up concerning McKinney's sordid past: through an old obsessed boyfriend, Gavin unearthed hundreds of photos of McKinney engaged in acts of prostitution and light pornography (dramatic bondage and vaguely tasteless nude photography.) McKinney flat out denies the existence of these, claiming photo manipulation and slander; unfortunately Gavin reveals most of the photos (everything that wasn't published) were lost when the paper changed owners years ago. What, exactly, are we supposed to believe?
Peter Tory, the other journalist interviewed, seems to gravitate more toward the lurid. Gleefully reveling in the sexual bizarreness of the case, Tory paints McKinney as something of a ringmaster presiding over her own private circus, turning her tabloid celebrity into a form of bondage and domination over the public at large. Tory sees McKinney and the public as being caught up in a grossly symbiotic relationship with one another; Joyce pulled all the strings and the public lapped it up, demanding more, ever more. Only when things began to get out of McKinney's control (when the pornographic photos began to turn up in the papers) did she retreat and cry foul, railing against the invasions towards her person that she fully embraced and courted only weeks before. McKinney believes the hyperfocused attention drove her to a crippling state of agoraphobia; the hunter becomes the hunted and the hunted becomes the invisible. McKinney also says that "...if you tell a lie long enough eventually you'll believe it"; it's difficult to view her version of events as absolute truth when her self-image is so perfectly constructed to be resistant to anything that might question that version. An argument could be made as to the necessity of this sort of thick skin given McKinney's history with celebrity, but a more likely explanation is far simpler: McKinney only wants to be viewed in the way she wants you to view her.
Manipulation and obsession inform the broader points of "Tabloid." McKinney is obsessed with Kirk Anderson from the moment she meets him, despite the fact that he's a pasty, fat, boring person. By all assessments there was nothing remarkable about him; Peter Tory wonders openly what attracted McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, to Anderson at all. Perhaps it was the ease with which she was able to commandeer his life; perhaps his blandness reflected a brighter image of her for herself. McKinney's friend Keith was similarly obsessed with her; his motivations throughout the ordeal remain obtusely unclear, but we can surmise that he was probably hoping some sort of romantic relationship would eventually blossom between McKinney and himself. The obsession extends outward; as much as McKinney was a slave to her own desires the media was a slave to hers. The public's own obsession with the "truth" of the matter allowed McKinney to carefully craft her persona and create the idea of what she wanted the public to see. At first the relationship worked marvelously, with the various magazines holding McKinney up as something completely new and astonishing-a good Utah girl pushed to the brink by the discriminatory actions of traditional Mormonism, going all in for the sake of love-but eventually they demanded more, digging deeper and rejecting McKinney's crafted image of herself in favor of something closer to a newer, perceived "truth." Only when her manipulations failed did McKinney begin to be bothered by all the attentions; only when she could no longer be who she wanted to be did she view the game distastefully.
A different filmmaker might have challenged McKinney; Morris instead gives us leave to weigh everything we're given and draw our own conclusion about her. If he had challenged her "Tabloid" would have been a much different film, something that perhaps took itself too seriously or purported to be some sort of vehicle for historical accuracy and ideology rather than the strange, delerious tour through weirdness it is. There's nothing sacred in Morris' methodology; it's people as they are, being who they are, judgment be fucked. In that manner "Tabloid" is revelatory, with Morris demonstrating why he's one of the American documentarists most capable of approaching Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth"; there's a beauty hidden beneath all the layers of the varying narratives that can speak deeply to some of the problems currently plaguing modernity. McKinney's case is messed up but it's far from unique; her tabloid dalliances are almost exactly the same as the ones that exist today, staring you in the face at whatever grocery store line you find yourself standing in. There is no immunity from this sort of media deluge. It's all around you, and it's screaming at you to pay attention to it. This is part of the cultural consciousness; it's your duty to know about this sort of shit.
McKinney is never really able to escape the spotlight, even despite her battle with agoraphobia. Retreating to her parents' spacious farmland to begin a life of loneliness and reflection that she hopes will produce a book about her experiences, McKinney finds herself besieged by story-hungry, photo-stealing opportunists trespassing onto her land and into her privacy yet again. Hoping to dissuade their efforts she brings home a monstrous pit bull she names "Tough Guy"; later she brings home a smaller pit bull runt whom she christens "Booger." It doesn't take long for tragedy to strike. Tough Guy goes crazy and attacks McKinney, severing her hand at the wrist. Booger perishes trying to save McKinney from the carnage. Despondent and isolated, McKinney hears something about cloning and decides to have Booger brought back to life. Paying a doctor in Korea $150,000 to craft a new Booger lands McKinney in the shutter eye once again, even moreso when the cloning is a smashing success yielding five (!) perfect little Boogers for McKinney to fawn over; it's interesting that she again finds herself amidst an ethical maelstrom attached to her actions. It's almost as though Morris is suggesting through this chronology that we demand more from our celebrities than they can possibly give, pushing them to the furthest reaches of outlandish, extreme behaviour. It's not an indictment (he is, after all, the person making the film) but it's close to a warning-be careful about what sort of value you place on entertainment or the lines will begin to blur dramatically.
For all it's over the top theatrics, "Tabloid"'s most striking, transcendent moment comes towards the end during McKinney's sabbatical to her parents' farm. Shooting home footage for unknown purposes, McKinney passes the camera over a backyard plot of land four different times, her narration detailing how little is there, how nothing changes, how stagnancy informs the majority of our surroundings. Watching it you want to find something different in each pass, some important little detail that will allow the scene to make perfect sense, but there's nothing. There's just a want, a nervous, anxious ache to see SOMETHING, anything, rather than the dull and lifeless parade of dropping greenery that makes up the McKinney estate. It's a riddle offered up to both the audience and McKinney. How much do you want this to have meaning? It's difficult to accept that not everything does, that randomness and circumstance shape our lives just as much as the choices we make.
"Tabloid" is ultimately a study of some of those choices and their outcomes; Morris holds this story up for your subjective appraisal. If there is an actual "truth" here it's marvelously obscured by myriad recollection and the dusts of time; you can accept one version or many and come out with a different set of meanings for each. Though not as poetic as some of Morris' other films, "Tabloid" still boasts an impressive amount of visual trickery and playfulness; anything more than a light touch would have detracted from the ridiculously immersive narrative that unfolds. The weight of the issues and problems at hand never bog the film down-it's still laugh out loud funny-but they never fully retreat either, hanging like spectres across the shadowy murk of fuzzy ethics and frustrating revelations that comprise the bulk of the work. Morris wants you to realize that entertainment is never free; someone always pays, and behind every fucked up unbelievable circle of events concerning people far removed from there's a true human element. We may build pedestals to turn people into idols, but we seem just as eager to tear those pedestals down and reduce the idols to ash when they don't meet our expectations and demands. These architectures are eternal; the actual implications of those structures' continued existences are for you to figure out.