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WARNING: SPREAD-EAGLED SPOILERS
Last May, after seeing the Seattle International Film Festival screening of Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Tabloid,” about Joyce McKinney and the 1977 Mormon sex-in-chains case, my friend Ben and I found ourselves disagreeing about the main subject, McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who, like Robert McNamara in Morris’ “The Fog of War,” more or less indicts herself in her talking-head interviews. I found her initially amusing, then increasingly sad, then turn-your-head-away nuts. Ben thought she was acting the whole time. He thought she just wanted the spotlight, even Morris’ spotlight, and would do anything to get it.
Ten steps outside the theater, something happened that made one of us change our minds.
Are you familiar with McKinney? I wasn’t. The main characters in the drama are all American but the crime itself, if it was a crime, happened in Britain, where it became a tabloid sensation.
Basic facts: McKinney, a former beauty queen, met Kirk Anderson, Mormon, in the American west in the mid-1970s. The two were apparently engaged. Then he disappeared. Did he leave or was impelled to leave by others? She hires a private investigator, Jackson Shaw, to track him down and the trail leads to Ewell, Surrey, where he’s doing Mormon missionary work, and she, Shaw, and a pilot, along with her friend Keith “K.J.” May, travel to England to retrieve him. After both Shaw and the pilot return to the states, citing differences with and concerns about McKinney, she and Anderson wind up in a cottage in Devon. Did he go willingly or was he kidnapped? He’s tied to a bed and they have sex. Was it kinky sex or rape? Days later, when he finally files a report of kidnapping and rape, the British tabloids go mad. “There was something in that story for everyone,” says Kent Gavin, a photographer for The Daily Mirror, citing, among other items, the words “sex,” “beauty queen” and “spread-eagled.” He adds: “It was a perfect tabloid story.”
So the question: Which version of events is correct? Was it a story of star-crossed lovers (her version) or was it kidnapping and rape (his version)? Was it a love story, as she claims, or a porno story, as the tabloids trumpeted?
Here’s Morris in the documentary “Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary” (2008):
This idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is subjective—there’s truth for you, there’s truth for me, everybody has their own truth—for me, that’s nonsense talk. There’s a real world. We inhabit that real world. Things happen.
But we don’t get that definitive point-of-view in “Tabloid.” Morris brings in a third party, a reformed Mormon, to get us into the Mormon mindset; and of course we have McKinney herself, older and overweight now, as the film’s main talking head, giving us her mindset, such as it is. But Morris doesn’t seem interested in parsing the matter any further than he does.
Perhaps for this reason: No matter the truth, her version of events, the supposed romantic version, the version without a crime, is actually creepier than his.
The documentary begins with Super 8 footage of McKinney, probably in the late ‘70s, wearing a long, white dress and a post-Farrah shag, walking on estate grounds and reading from a book. It’s her book. She reads: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little princess—the most beautiful princess in all of the land.” As a talking head, she refers to her former kidnap victim, whom she hasn’t seen in more than three decades, as “My Kirk.” She calls their story “a very special love story” and says, in a little girl’s voice, “I wanted to give him lots of babies in my tummy.”
Ick. Nails on a chalkboard. Immediately. It’s a glimpse into that crazy, gauzy, romantic fantasy world of women that would send most men screaming from the room.
Her romanticism is also at odds with her own reality. In that reality, as the tabloids back then uncovered, and as Morris implies, McKinney made the money for this misadventure in the porn business. Bondage photos. Was there prostitution as well? Unknown. But at the least she uses the promise of sex to further her goals. Shaw helps her, he says, because she’s good-looking and wears a see-through blouse. “Totally see-through,” he adds with a randy smile. Then there’s K.J., the eunuch in the story, at her beck-and-call. What is he hoping for?
Think of the irony. She uses sex to bend men to fit her fantasies, which are romantic, and winds up a plaything in men’s fantasies, which are about sex. She wanted “Once upon a time...” and wound up with “McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.”
For a time, she revels in the tabloid attention. Then the attention goes elsewhere. What happens then?
Well, in 1984, McKinney tries to reestablish contact with Anderson, who is now married with children. He gets a restraining order.
There’s home footage of McKinney in 1986 suffering from a kind of agoraphobia. She can’t seem to leave her home. She thinks people are out to get her.
But she gets a dog, a pit bull named Booger, whom she loves, and who dies in the 2000s. She can’t bear this loss. So she hires a Korean doctor to have her dog cloned. It’s an expensive but ultimately successful procedure and headlines are made around the world. She’s reunited with the dog she loves, as she wasn’t with the man she loves, and, in her little girl’s voice, talks up the joy of having five little Boogers running around.
All the while, my friend Ben, sitting next to me in the theater, laughed and laughed. I sat silent, sickened.
Morris, I thought, was taking advantage of this woman’s mental state without the benefit of any kind of artistry. He was throwing this mess on the screen, spread-eagled, for everyone to see.
At least that’s what I argued with Ben as we made our way out of the theater.
Then it happened.
Ben’s making his points, about what kind of person McKinney is, how she’s an actress, how she just wants the spotlight, and a passerby says, “She’s right over there.”
Ben looks up. “Who?”
We walk over to a crowd forming a half circle around a short, fat woman. And, yes, it’s Joyce McKinney, the woman we’ve just watched talking on the big screen for 90 minutes. She’s still talking, still complaining, but this time about Errol Morris. He promised, she says, that the documentary would be an exposé on the tabloids and the Mormons, and instead she got this, which is more an exposé of her. Once again, her tale wasn’t being told properly. Once again, she needed to right this wrong.
On and on she went, a modern, solipsistic Joseph K, railing at the forces against her. After two, three minutes, Ben and I finally turned away and made our way out of the crowd. Both of us were silent now. Finally he said, shaking his head, “You’re right. She’s nuts.”
Except I don’t know if I was right. Or honest. I assumed I was sickened by McKinney’s deteriorating mind when it may have been far shallower than that; it may have been her deteriorating looks.
Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.
I saw “Tabloid” before the British-tabloid cellphone-hacking scandal broke. No doubt that scandal has been good for Morris’ film. It’s also, I believe, fostering the sense that we, as a society, have got the bad guys—Brooks, Hinton, “News of the World,” Murdoch—on the run now. There’s a sense that we’re finally past this crap. We’re not. We still want it, we just don’t need Murdoch and company to deliver it to us anymore. It’s their mode, not their content, that’s outdated. I saw this after the SIFF screening, as Joyce McKinney, that fat, lost loon, complained about Errol Morris and the tabloid press and the Mormon church. No one said a thing. In the two minutes or so that I was there, no one tried to communicate with her. Instead, one by one, people took out their smartphones and began filming.
July 20, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard