Film review by: Witney Seibold
I have read some American tabloids, and they are lurid, cheap rags that sensationalize the smallest detail to the point of humiliation (“Look at how FAT they look!”) and eventual celebrity breakdown, which they’ll also get to cover. There is a weird journalistic purity to the utter shamelessness in American tabloids. They choose the single most obvious “scandal” angle, be it weight gain, drug habits, infidelity, or money troubles, and blow it up to such a trashy, melodramatic level, that the basest desires of every reader are immediately sated, and every one of their paranoid celebrity jealousies are confirmed. Occasionally, a real scandal will break, which allows the writers of tabloids to relax for at least a year or two, as they constantly hammer away on the same details. Just yesterday, I saw a tabloid revealing more details about the murder of JonBenet Ramsay, which, if I must remind you, took place in November of 1996. It’s like a soap opera parading as journalism.
British tabloids are, however, the same, only writ much larger. Few things reach the shallow, bubble-gum parade of syrup-dripping pseudo-scandal like a British tabloid. And who better to make a movie about a swirling miasma of scandal, half-turths and eccentric people than playful master documentarian Errol Morris? Morris has made films about a pet cemetery, a death machine designer, a naked mole-rat expert, Robert McNamara, and Stephen Hawking. His subjects are always outsiders and strangers who don’t seem to quite operate on the same level as most people. They are carried away by their interests to a margin of social norms that is somewhere close to madness, but is more akin to passion and, in the case of Joyce McKinney, pathological gregariousness.
Here is McKinney’s version of events: In 1977, McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, fell in love with a tall Mormon fellow, and they had designs on marriage. Just as they were preparing to get married though, he was spirited off to England by his church. McKinney gathered up a friend, and flew over there to get him. She kidnapped him from his church, took him to a country motel, chained him to a bed, and resolved to love the crazy out of him. She let him go, he unexpectedly returned to the church, and McKinney became the subject of a police investigation. The local tabloids stared coming up with punchy titles like “The Case of the Manacled Mormon!” McKinney claimed that this was an intense romance, and she was open in interviews about the purity of her lovemaking. Her man claimed rape. This is a field day for tabloids. Former beauty queen. Sex. Religion. Crime. Kidnapping. Lies. It’s all there for the fun.
Morris manages to get McKinney back on camera to reminisce about her love for this man, but also the other scandals in her life. What about the seedy nude pictures they took of you? Those were doctored, midear. He finds some of the tabloid reporters in the day, and some of them reveal that they not only had genuine nude pictures of McKinney (despite her claims), but also evidence that she and a friend were involved in sex work. McKinney denies the allegations of sex work, although if she was making a few bucks on the side giving erotic massages, there’s no shame in that.
Oh, and her story gets more complicated. Morris allows his subjects to be candid and open, and they become increasingly confessional as the story continues. McKinney talks about her experience as an agoraphobic. As a stalled writer. As one of the first people to clone her pet (!). I’m not sure how Morris does it. He not only finds the fascinating tales of ordinary madness, but manages to have everyone confess everything, while making everything seems, still, kind of ambiguous. Morris is not interested in finding a solution, or even judging the final result. He’s only allowing us to swim around, as he does, in the strange, real-life mystery of it. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the old saw goes, and Morris is out to prove it.
What of the story is true? Did Joyce kidnap that guy, or did he go willingly? Is she as flirty as her compatriots remember? How much did the reporters get right? Get wrong? All we know is that McKinney herself, now a resolute and charming woman in her 60s, has survived and has a bit of the romantic about her.