I am very pleased to be living in the Golden Age of the documentary. There weren’t many that made it onto movie screens when I was a boy, and now a well-made documentary is a staple of the art house circuit. Documentaries have their own section on Netflix. Documentaries are out there, man, moving, shaking things up, hobnobbing at fancy parties. I saw a documentary in the streets the other day, a fellow who had been down on his luck for years, and there he was in a suit and tie, getting into a Porsche. I asked how he was doing and he shot me two thumbs up. “This is my time!” he shouted.
I think filmmaker Errol Morris gets a lot of the credit for this. He was making documentaries when they were still film’s semi-neglected sibling, back in 1978 when he lensed “Gates of Heaven,” a sublime film about an unlikely subject, the pet cemetery business. In fact, the subject was so unlikely that fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is also a great documentarian, promised he would eat his shoe if the film ever made it into the theaters. It did, and Herzog not only ate his shoe, but filmed it and turned it into a new documentary, called “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.” You can even watch the film online, at YouTube; one likes to imagine that another documentary filmmaker somewhere made a wager that if “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” were ever widely seen, he would eat something else, perhaps a hat, and now a new documentary is being made.
Until that comes out, we shall have to satisfy ourselves with Morris’ latest, “Tabloid.” Morris has often benefited from filming subjects that happened to be of great interest at the moment his film came out. His “A Brief History of Time,” as an example, came out just at the moment when the world had developed a fascination with physicist Stephen Hawking. Similarly, “The Fog of War” interviewed former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about the quagmire that was Vietnam just when the U.S. was heavily investing in a new quagmire in Iraq. And now “Tabloid,” about a British tabloid scandal, comes out at just the moment of perhaps the biggest British tabloid scandal ever, at the very end of the News of the World, and perhaps at the end of publisher Rupert Murdoch’s reign of power.
Coincidence of timing aside, Morris’ “Tabloid” isn’t really about the tabloid industry. We do meet two men from that world, a very posh reporter from the Daily Express and a rather working-class photographer from competitor the Daily Mirror. But we find out little about them or their newspapers, except the sort of disreputable details we would expect — that they have a taste for scandal, buy stories off subjects, and ransack their pasts searching for embarrassing secrets. In 1977, they found a doozy of a story which they gave a series of startling sobriquets: the Mormon Sex in Chains case, the Case of the Manacled Mormon.
The story, quickly, is of one Joyce Bernann McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming World, who traveled to England in search of a Mormon missionary she was in love with. Depending on whom you ask, she either whisked him away to a cottage in Devon for a romantic weekend involving crying, a lot of guilt, some light bondage and sex, or the Mormon was kidnapped and repeatedly sexually assaulted by McKinney. The former version of the story is McKinney’s; the latter, the Mormon’s. And the question of which is the true story is at the heart of “Tabloid.”
Of course, we can’t know the truth. The case never made it to court, thanks to McKinney fleeing the country by pretending to be a member of a deaf-mute acting troupe (an odd detail, I know; hardly the oddest the film discovers). The tabloids had very different takes on the story — the Express managed a private interview with McKinney, who was then on the lam from the FBI and dressed as a recent immigrant from Bombay, and they told of a somewhat balmy eccentric and her romantic misadventures. The Mirror, meanwhile, dug up hundreds of nude photographs of McKinney and ran them, painting her as a deranged sex worker.
McKinney herself is an unreliable witness, and much of “Tabloid” consists of interviews with her in which she alternates between idyllic reverie about how terribly, terribly much she loved her Mormon missionary and bizarre rants against the Mormon church, which she views as a mind-control cult. One of the tabloid employees describes her as “barking mad,” and that seems fair. It’s probably not all that fun to be McKinney, but her madness is terrifically entertaining to audiences. She just can’t seem to live a normal life, and gets thrust back into the attention of the tabloids in a weird coda that involves dog cloning, which I suppose I could try to describe, but perhaps it’s better if you just experience it for yourself when you see the film. I would not want to steal from you the sense of narrative unlikeliness the film produces, a sort of “this can’t possibly be true” that emerges again and again.
Morris’ “The Fog of War” was subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” but I’m not sure there are 11 lessons to be taken from “Tabloid.” I’m not even sure what one lesson might be. “Don’t be a former beauty queen and nude model who makes off with a Mormon missionary for some bizarre sexcapade?” When is that circumstance ever going to repeat itself? McKinney seems puzzled throughout the film why anybody would care about this story (“Who cares about my sex life?” she asks at one point, or words to that effect), which seems naive to the point of blinkered — it’s a story that was made for tabloids. And I suppose what Morris has to offer is that he’s not crass, not sensationalistic, and a better investigator than the tabloids had, and so is going to tell this strange story in a way that is fuller and fairer than has been offered before. But it still has a sort of perverse quality to it, in that the only reason the story is interesting is because it’s so saucy and so strange.
It may be that McKinney is right — we shouldn’t care about her sex life, and whatever happened between her and the missionary is between her and the missionary, and he’s not saying anything. She certainly wasn’t seeking attention, and still isn’t — it just came and found her, and still finds her every so often, because she’s still so odd.
I suppose if there is a lesson in this film, it’s that McKinney accidentally offered up a perfect storm of what makes a celebrity. There was a strong, unresolved story the tabloids could milk. There was scandal. There was sex. And, more than anything, there was visual spectacle, first in that McKinney was a beauty queen, later in desperate photos of her in jail, and later still heaps and loads and mounds of naked photos. If you don’t want the tabloids and the documentarians to come for you one day, avoid these sorts of things.