The tales of “Tabloid” (2011)
17 July 2011
Errol Morris must have watched the news unfold about Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World with a big grin on his face. Considering his new documentary’s imminent release date, he must have realized how timely his subject would be. For you see, Tabloid is about scandals, storytelling, and the press. As I watched this film, the audience hooted with delight at the tale’s twists and turns; Morris’s co-producer, Mark Lipson, calls it a “Looney Tunes Rashomon.” But secretly, I think this is a far more serious film than is evident on the surface. I think this film is about how all our stories are laced with other stories — trapping us in derivative narratives that shape who we think we are, and who we want to be.
Joyce McKinney was — is — a beautiful woman with a buttery North Carolina accent, a willingness to show off her curves, and a very high IQ (168). One might be tempted to say that the dumbest thing she ever did was fall in love with a puffy, bespeckled Mormon named Kirk Anderson, but that would be too simple. Fall she did; and when he left her abruptly to go on his mission to England, she was convinced he’d been brainwashed. She hatched a cunning plan to get him back: spirit him off to a cottage in Devon, remind him of their mutual love and thereby un-brainwash him, and set a date for the wedding. Then all hell broke loose, and she was arrested on the charge of kidnapping and rape — and the tabloids had a field day with headlines like KIDNAPPED.
Is it love or is it SEX IN CHAINS, as the tabloids had it? Because Morris is no ordinary mortal but a filmmaking genius, we quickly see that this isn’t a simple he said/she said tale. Joyce has been entranced by tales of true love. Her story is laced with allusions to fairy-tale love — happily ever afters, “I do”s, wedding rings and white dresses. Morris interweaves her talking-head accounts with snippets of cartoon princesses and 1950s housewives, indicating some of the sources of her tales. As much as he wants us to question whether she’s telling the truth, he also wants us to ask whether she’s deluding herself. “To me it isn’t truth and lying,” Morris told an interviewer at the Toronto Film Festival. “To me it’s between lying and self-deception. And I think that most of us — and I certainly include myself in that category — convince ourselves of the truth of things, so that genuinely we cannot feel that we’re lying about anything.”
Nor is Joyce the only one whose personal truth is an amalgam of other tales. Competing tabloid reporters from The Daily Mail and The Sun still quiver with delight and self-satisfaction at their SEX IN CHAINS stories — and each time, Morris allows their over-the-top, tabloid-ready phrases to flash in the screen. As one reporter describes how Kirk Anderson was chained to the bed, the words SPREAD EAGLE flash several times, along with cartoon images of such characters. While Joyce imagines Cinderella endings, they race to the bottom — offering up lurid scenarios, speculating that she’s “barking mad,” and all the while battling with each other to offer up the most outrageous accounts for a greedy public. What becomes obvious is that they’re lying, too, and they’ve got all the financial reasons in the world to do so.
Many of the interviews I’ve read with Morris demonstrate that viewers are taking a dim view of Joyce, as if she’s the only real liar in this tale. “What’s your interpretation of Joyce? Is she completely delusional?” asks one reporter from the Daily Beast. When Morris demurs, the reporter follows up: “Is Joyce just obsessed with fame?” That was how people in my theater responded — walking out, they repeated the tabloid reporters’ expressions: she was barking mad! This response is a simplistic reading of the film — my one complaint is that Morris has made it too easy for audiences to focus their hoots on Joyce’s slippery charm and lose the big picture. That is, in forefronting some of the tabloids’ methods in scandal-making, I think many viewers lose the meta critique he’s offering.
Honestly, I think the reason they do so is that she’s a woman, a blonde, a sex kitten. But look at how Morris has marketed the film on the poster: he’s used one of Joyce’s soft-core photos of herself as Eve, holding that red apple at her throat with her blonde tresses falling about her and her lips open. In making reference back to one of our ur-stories — a story that, by the way, has inspired some of the most divergent interpretations of all time — he suggests that interpretations of this tale are open to debate.
Thus, I beg you to reconsider one of those stories you’ve told about yourself. A story that deals, perhaps, with a sticky memory of your past — something difficult and complex, a story in which you don’t exactly appear as the hero. Consider how it changed with repeated tellings, how it got better, how you knocked off those rough edges — such that now you can tell it successfully and without sweat or tears or hesitation. And then tell yourself, Joyce, c’est moi.