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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jul. 15, 2011 | 10:18 AM

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Although his last two films, The Fog of War, and Standard Operating Procedure were serious examinations of U.S. foreign policy choices, documentarian Errol Morris has often indulged a more playful side.  Always on the lookout for tales of the strange and surreal, Morris’ has given us films about small town life (Vernon, Florida), pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) and topiary gardeners (Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).  Nothing he’s done so far, however, can measure up to the bizarre tale Morris unfolds in his latest work, Tabloid.  With the real life implosion of two of Britain’s most notorious gossip sheets providing the perfect backdrop, Morris’ exploration of one of the UK’s most notorious tabloid stories couldn’t be more timely.

As is the case with most tabloid tales, it’s difficult to ascertain where the truth lies.  In Morris’ film, the case of Joyce McKinney is even more nettlesome.  Most of the events described in the film took place over three decades ago, and there remains precious little official documentation of what actually transpired.  Instead, Morris places most of his focus on McKinney’s side of the story, which often seems far too outrageous to be true.  In short, McKinney claims that she was a former beauty queen with an IQ of 168, who moved to Utah and fell in love with a young man named Kurt Anderson.  Their initial courtship was short lived, due to Anderson’s sudden disappearance.  After marshalling all her resources, McKinney tracks Anderson down in the UK, at which point the facts start to become increasingly murky. 

Was Anderson brainwashed by a cult, necessitating his rescue by McKinney? Did McKinney kidnap Anderson away from his self-chosen Mormon Mission?  What happened during their weekend stay in Devonshire?  Was it three days of bliss, or did McKinney turn Anderson into her personal sex slave, inspiring the UK papers to brand the affair “the Case of the Manacled Mormon”?  What’s astonishing about Tabloid is that these are just the first couple of chapters in McKinney’s twisted tale. 

What’s even more peculiar about Tabloid is the way Joyce McKinney clearly cooperated with Morris in the making of the film, but has subsequently tried to distance herself from it.  A recent New York times article had McKinney protesting the way her story is depicted in Tabloid, yet she has also appeared at several festival screenings of the film for audience Q & A with Morris (including a recent appearance at the Cinefamily here in Los Angeles).  There have also been accounts of McKinney sneaking into screenings of the film in disguise.

For his part, Morris conducts his interviews in the film off camera, although he does voice an occasional question.  One of the most fascinating elements of the film is the way it explores our culture’s seemingly bottomless appetite for salacious, sensationalistic news stories.  In the pre-internet age, tabloid newspapers were the engine that drove the gossip machine, and at the time McKinney’s exploits were front page news in the UK for weeks.  Additional context is provided by Peter Tory, a former reporter for the Daily Express, and Kent Gavin, a former photographer for the Mirror. 

According to the film’s end credits, Kurt Anderson refused to speak with Morris about what transpired all those years ago.  McKinney, for her part, comes across in the film as someone starved for attention, despite all her protestations to the contrary.  While Anderson’s side of the story might have provided an interesting counterpoint to McKinney’s, the film works just fine without it.  Morris is not on a fact finding mission with Tabloid.  Instead, he’s unearthed a tremendous tabloid story, and given us its cinematic equivalent.

Tabloid opens Friday, July 15th at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and The Landmark in West Los Angeles.  Director Errol Morris is scheduled to appear at the Landmark for audience Q & A after the 7:30 screenings on Friday and Saturday.

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