Morris revisits the odd case of ‘the Manacled Mormon’
Documentarian and Cambridge legend Errol Morris has described his new movie, “Tabloid,’’ as “a compendium of my themes.’’ That makes it sound as heavy as a dictionary when in fact it’s among the lightest of his works - a party joke from a gifted raconteur, or a summer soufflé whipped up by a mischievous master chef. It’s a guaranteed good time at the movies, but I can think of at least three other Morris films that have stuck with me longer.
That said, the delightful, deluded hurricane at the center of “Tabloid’’ simply cannot be denied. Joyce McKinney is one of those giddy Southern belles who can’t walk to the corner store without a multipart tragicomic epic unfolding, every detail of which she’ll tell you with breathless embellishment. She is without question the star of the movie unspooling in her head, and, even if she’s currently denying it, she’s the star of this movie, too.
For much of 1977, McKinney was also a fixture of the British tabloids - an American ex-beauty queen who ran amok for love, kidnapped her Mormon ex-fiance, Kirk Anderson, from an English LDS church, and hogtied him to a bed for several days of carnal ravishment. “The Case of the Manacled Mormon’’ had it all: sex, religion, a hot blonde who couldn’t stop talking, and the man-bites-dog curiosity of its alleged crime. Can a woman rape a man? Insists a perky McKinney to Morris’s camera, “That’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.’’
There are oddities all around the fringes of this story, like McKinney’s coconspirator, Keith May, who has since died and remains a murky figure - either a partner in crime or hapless love slave. A pilot the two hired to spirit Anderson back to the United States juicily relates his attraction to McKinney; it didn’t make it any easier when she held one business meeting on a nude beach. The largest empty space is Anderson himself, who wouldn’t speak to Morris and who remains a pear-shaped, negligible enigma. Did the Prince Charming his fiancee saw have anything to do with reality? If you’re Joyce McKinney, does it matter?
More than once, Morris cuts away to a home movie his subject made not long after returning to America, after she and May had skipped bail and boarded a plane in disguise. It’s a gauzy 16mm concoction in which McKinney, dressed as a faerie princess, wanders through a glade and reads from the “very special love story’’ she’s writing. (Thirty-five years later, the book has yet to be finished.) “Tabloid’’ uses that footage to comment ironically on her state of mind, in much the way Werner Herzog repurposed Timothy Treadwell’s videos in “Grizzly Man.’’
The difference is that McKinney is very much alive - if anything, she’s the bear - and, now somewhere in her 50s, she holds the center of “Tabloid’’ like a gossipy, energetic diva. Only gradually, under the deceptively friendly stare of Morris’s Interrotron camera, do bits of strangeness and sadness leak out, like the love for dogs that has had consequences both gruesome and ridiculous (and, yes, newsworthy).
Morris also jollies “Tabloid’’ up with any number of stylistic touches - bold-print headlines, zippy cutaways, tawdry news clippings, snippets of other movies. A scene from the 1972 hippie make-out classic “Brother Sun, Sister Moon’’ perfectly captures the banality of McKinney’s romantic worldview. Where “Tabloid’’ falls short is in giving us anything about McKinney’s early years; why bother to explain her when she’s more entertaining as a found object?
Is the director making fun of her? ’Course he is, and so are you. In fact, the reason McKinney has recently embarked on a crusade against this film - to the point of interrupting screenings and calling movie critics on the phone (I’m unplugging mine as we speak, Joyce) - is that “Tabloid’’ views her life with a sharp pop irony she has to resist if it’s going to make any sense to her.
Morris refuses to tell McKinney’s story the only way she can see it, with the nude photos and rumors of S&M escorting on the side edited out.
Yet if there’s an amused and even elitist ridicule in Morris’s tone, there’s also real admiration for a woman so adamant about bending the world to her will, however crazily. “Tabloid’’ early on lets us know that McKinney has (or claims to have) an IQ of 168, and clearly someone with her charisma and resourcefulness could have done just about anything. That she did it all for a child’s idea of romance and still ended up alone is what keeps this movie from floating off on the summer breeze.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.