In case you haven’t heard of Joyce McKinney before, you are in for a treat with Errol Morris’ “Tabloid,” an absolute gem of a film. The tale, or as McKinney would have it, the fairytale, begins with a beauty queen (McKinney) looking for her Prince Charming and finding a Mormon missionary (Kirk Anderson) instead.

This never stops her.

She feels that Anderson truly loves her, and when he is sent to England to do his missionary work, she tracks him down to save him from the brainwashing she believes he was succumbed to. McKinney attempts to loosen the grip of the Mormon Church upon Anderson by taking him to an English cottage, and proceeding to engage in a three-day “honeymoon” with him, envisioning herself as his bride.

According to McKinney, she sacrifices her virginity to break him free from the spell of the church, thus saving him. The honeymoon comes to an abrupt end when Anderson’s parents, and the Church, report him kidnapped. Anderson goes off to let them know he is alive and well, and tells McKinney he’ll be back for her, and they’ll be married. What follows is McKinney’s arrest. The ending is far from happy, as she is handcuffed in her wedding dress on her way to Anderson.

As former Daily Express journalist, Peter Torey, declares, “there was something in that story for everyone. It was the perfect tabloid story.”

The tale, according to the Mormon Church, is that McKinney was obsessed with Anderson, kidnapped him, and raped him. What we will never know is the truth. But what we can examine, and this is what Morris attempts to show us through his film, is how the story unfolds in the media.

As Morris explained in the Q&A portion of the screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, “I make movies because there are so many unresolved mysteries.” At the time of the screening, the News of the World scandal had just erupted, highlighting the lengths to which tabloids can go to sell newspapers.

Morris commented on the surprising timing saying, “there are all kinds of questions between this film and News of the World.” “I like tabloids. Where would I be without a tabloid?” Without this film, that’s for sure.
But as Morris says, there are two needs when it comes to tabloids — the first: the need for people to buy the paper and read your story, and the second, the need for facts. What happens when the need to sell stories supersedes the facts? The result is McKinney’s story.

McKinney is presented in the media in an absurdly, dichotomous way. In one tabloid, she is presented as a sex-crazed nymphomaniac and prostitute, and in the other, she is portrayed as a self-sacrificing virgin and a nun. What lies in the heart of these two representations is the way in which the media, and society in general, represents women.

One tabloid tells McKinney’s version of the story- that she had tied up Anderson with ropes, so as to free him to do what he desired without the guilt that went along with it, a maneuver that she had actually come upon in a Christian manual. In this version, she is giving herself up to the man she loves—sacrificing herself—while Anderson is portrayed as a willing manacled Mormon, and the reason he testifies against McKinney is because he is scared and angry because he “couldn’t become a God and have his own planet,” as McKinney puts it.

“He put me in prison to save himself from excommunication,” she reasons in the film.

In the other tale, she handcuffs Anderson and using ropes, places him in the spread eagle position, and has his way with him. What Morris portrays is the comedy in it; the absurdity. On the one hand, McKinney received letters from men saying, “please come and rape me anytime,” sending her their addresses attached. On the other, when Morris asks her if it is possible for a woman to rape a man she replies no, because “that’s like putting a marshmallow into a parking meter.”

At one point in the Q&A the interviewer turns to Morris and says, “This film is a fight for control of words,” to which Morris replies, “Well, thank you.” The film is about framing, storytelling, and a battle for the word and the image. Throughout it, Morris is not only telling a story, but telling a story of how stories are told.

During one portion of the film McKinney says, “I never fled. I resent the word fled. I left,” at which point the audience laughs, but what McKinney clears up in that statement is how she is portrayed. Morris himself admits he is a part of the process, saying, “Joyce at the center of all these men around her, including myself.” She battles for how she is represented and how she is seen. As Morris asked during the Q&A, did Peter Torey keep referring to McKinney’s maneuvers as “spread eagle” because that’s what happened or was it his wishful thinking? Was he telling the story or creating the story? The audience is never clear on how to see her.

In the course of the Q&A, a young woman in the audience asked Morris if he sees McKinney as an object of ridicule, to which he replied, “I look at her as a kindred spirit…I like her,” saying of all his subjects, “I have to like them…I’m trying to reveal something about them. I see it as a very loving portrait.”

The audience member pushed further and told Morris that McKinney was exploited by the media and the film, and that he was complicit in this exploitation. To which Morris calmly replied, “There’s something inherently ridiculous about this story. It’s not my fault.” Morris does attempt to let McKinney speak for herself and makes it a point not to ridicule her or make her “the other.” “I’m just a person. I’m just a human being,” McKinney simply says.

As Morris stresses, whether or not we admit it, and whether or not we like it, “Joyce’s story is the story of all of us. Have we written the crazy scripts for ourselves?” Yes, in fact we are creating them every day. We are directing our own stories.  Morris ends the film with footage of McKinney in her youth, walking in a field, reading the fairytale that she has written of her own life, and as Morris shows throughout the film, “her life became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“I’ll die loving him. I’m an incurable romantic,” she poignantly says. In fact, Anderson is the love of her life. When she sees the woman he married, McKinney says the only thing she had over her is 100 lbs., and the fact that she was Mormon. We laugh. But we can hear the pain in that statement. We can see that she thought, ‘Why her? Why not me?’ She sees that he had children and says, “I could have give him babies.”

As Morris describes McKinney, “she is one of the great romantics.”

“I fulfilled a dream of hers. To make her life into art,” he proudly says. We are left with a McKinney as beautifully tragic as Juliet, as relatable to us as Anna Karenina, and as idealistic as Madame Bovary; human flaws and all — no fairytale needed.

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