Tabloid

Sundance Selects
 
The seminal documentarian Errol Morris continues his unorthodox, open admiration for the oddball, eccentric and the obsessive with his typically funny, off the wall “Tabloid.“ 
 
The movie world premiered last year at the Toronto International Film festival (Reel to Reel section) and is now being released theatrically by Sundance Selects.
 
 In rummaging through an obscure story of some three decades ago, Morris focuses his sympathetic gaze on the strange and beguiling tale of Joyce McKinney, a charming and vivacious former Southern beauty queen who transfixed the British media with a sex scandal.
 
Morris has shifted gears somewhat after his recent string of serious, politically charged pieces such as “Mr. Death,“ about the death penalty and Holocaust deniers, the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” and the Abu Ghraib-themed “Standard Operating Procedure.“ 
 
“Tabloid” is a naturally looser and agreeable piece of Americana, blessedly free of some of the stylistic and formal repetitions that have marred and compromised some of Morris’s pieces, especially his sometime too explicit use of re-enactments.  The story is also caught in a lower register. As such, it is not one of this singular director’s major works, like “Gates of Heaven,“ about pet cemetery owners, “The Thin Blue Line,“ or “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.“ 
 
The film is deeply recognizable in the Morris vein, where in his adroit, forensic way he pitches his films on he search for the truth. A bright and vivacious blonde (a reported IQ of 168), McKinney certain cuts a wide swath. One of the fun parts of the film is that, decades later, still has the ability to enthrall. “Any heterosexual man would have been attracted to her,” says one admirer.
 
One of the many questions posed by the film is whether a darker streak exists inside her. Was she in fact a serial stalker who need for love and affection tramped her other qualities? Using his trademark direct address interview format, Morris allows McKinney and several other key participants relate the story of how she wound up in England in the late 1970s, following a chance encounter with Kirk Anderson, at a parking lot. 
 
Anderson was taking part in a mission in England who alleged, at the time, that McKinney and a male accomplice, tied him down and she sexually assaulted him. A former Miss Wyoming, McKinney admitted holding an almost preternatural crush on Anderson. Like other films in the festival, the Mormon faith becomes a somewhat too standard boogeyman. (McKinney says she was liberating him from the church’s cultish hold over him.)
 
Part of the problem is journalistically, the story is pretty one-sided. Anderson refused to be interviewed for the film, so the portrait of him never quite comes into focus.  Another key figure in the sordid affair has disappeared and has never been located. 
 
Morris compensates by studying instead the reaction to the case, in a Thatcher-era Britain during a moment the grungy, down market Fleet Street used a constant barrage of sex-themed stories during the newspaper circulation wars of the period. As usual with Morris, he digs up some wonderful off-beat and hypnotic period material, especially the exasperating television reporting. (One of the nifty effects he creates is silhouetting a contemporary Joyce against the square format of the period television sets.)
 
The story, dubbed the tale of the “Manacled Mormon,” generated a lot of publicity in England (even producing a couple of books). It’s fascinating to see how Victorian middle class British attitudes on sex truly were. But again, that’s not necessarily revelatory.
 
Part of the immense fun of the movie is charting the evolution of the rather disputed, disposable and the muckrakers who pioneered the art of digging up sordid details about their subjects. (Several British media hounds are part of the interview subjects here.) 
 
The truth is, the nonplussed reaction of the British authorities after McKinney skipped bail and returned home (the telling of which is one of the film highlights) only points out the lack of seriousness the law enforcement divisions regarded the case from the start.
 
The movie’s second half, likewise, loses steam, as it picks up again a darker thread about whether McKinney was a sex performer or call girl. (She insists alleged nude photos of her were doctored.) The final chapter is equally deranged, on some levels, about how she got hooked up with a discredited South Korean doctor who provides a very novel solution to her beloved dog’s bleak medical condition.
 
People are likely going to have a good time with “Tabloid.” It’s funky, agreeable and very entertaining. But what Morris has to say and the interest and dramatic possibilities of his subject only cuts skin deep.