Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has never been afraid to tackle the tough stuff in his films: say, corruption (The Thin Blue Line), warfare (The Fog of War), torture (Standard Operating Procedure) or the death penalty (Mr Death).
He’s tangoed with the wily Donald Rumsfeld over the politics of the Iraq invasion in The Unknown Known and investigated the pet cemetery business in Gates of Heaven. Beyond the striking cine-portraiture that seems to penetrate the deepest reaches of his subject’s souls, the Morris brand is frequently associated with investigating the serpentine nature of truth and the hazy subjectivity which plagues the realm between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ (and for Rumsfeld, all the other combinations of the two).
His 2010 film, Tabloid, is closer in tone to Vernon, Florida than The Unknown Known but he once again examines the precarious nature of objectivity through the “Case of the Manacled Mormon”, Joyce McKinney, and the manner in which the tabloid press contributed to the chaos.
In the late seventies, the British tabloids had a field day with McKinney’s story: an American beauty queen travelled to the UK to abduct and sexually assault a Mormon she was set to marry back in the US, before he abruptly left her to do missionary work abroad. There was religion, sex, danger, the S&M dynamics of the various relationships involved; it all added up to a highly-charged cocktail of sin and sleaze, and the newspapers went into overdrive to capture exclusives and outdo each other for increasingly sensationalist scoops.
Morris is clearly having fun with the dark and lurid elements swirling around McKinney’s story, using a combination of bold superimposed headlines over talking heads and zippy animated sequences to accentuate the salacious, and yet the film ultimately paints her less as a sex-mad fugitive (after being arrested and charged for abduction and assault, she jumped bail and fled the UK but no extradition proceedings were ever pursued) and more as a troubled, heartbroken woman who went to extreme lengths for love.
By the very nature of dovetailing McKinney’s criminal case with her recent escapades in dog cloning—she was behind the world’s first commercially-cloned canines—Morris does seem to be suggesting a behavioural throughline: when it comes to those she feels affection for, McKinney will go well beyond the norm to achieve companionship.
But the definitive truth of what happened during the alleged abduction and sexual assault is anybody’s guess, and while McKinney is a very intelligent woman (IQ 168, per the film) and a magnetic presence onscreen, it’s rather telling Morris has previously stated on her appearance in Tabloid, “We used to joke if there was an Academy Award for best performance in a documentary, she’d win.”
Tabloid is less opaque when it comes to the awfully ruthless and ruthlessly awful tactics of the tabloid press who resorted to stalking, chequebook journalism and highly speculative reporting (witness the way in which one journalist discusses whether ropes or chains were used during the crime) when covering McKinney’s case.
We’ve seen in recent times the despicable lengths the British tabloid press have gone to grab an exclusive during the News of the World hacking scandal, or how the sniff of a sex scandal can take on a life of its own online (cf. the royal rumble between Hulk Hogan versus Gawker Media), but Tabloid lays bare that questionable journalistic ethics are nothing new, and the frankly alarming manner in which some of the interviewed journalists speak should chill anyone concerned about a functioning fourth estate.
Following the documentary’s release the drama continued: McKinney attended several film festival screenings and stridently voiced her displeasure at her portrayal and even took the makers to court for a litany of complaints including defamation, infliction of emotional distress and breach-of-contract (you can read the specifics here) but the case was eventually dismissed.
Superficially, Tabloid may appear like the kooky, lighter side to Morris’ previous dark explorations of society and justice, but there’s a profound tragedy to McKinney’s story whichever way you interpret it, and a grim reminder that the media ecosystem will feed off scandal as long as the consumer-producer symbiosis remains intact. It may not rank within the category of Morris must-sees, but it’s definitely worth your time and far more penetrating than its pulpy premise suggests.
Director: Errol Morris
2010, rated M
Available on iTunes or on DVD from Antidote Films.
Tabloid is screening on 17 September at the “Weekend of Films on Journalism, Politics and the Media” hosted by Gil Scrine. Purchase tickets online.