After his recent string of political films, Errol Morris returns to his journalistic roots in Tabloid, a quirky account of former model Joyce McKinney who was accused of raping a Mormon Missionary in 1977. This unbelievable tale is captured with poignant distinction as it examines the distortions of reality that are presented by the media and the lies that we tell ourselves to be true.

Moving into the fourth decade of his career, Morris must have realised he had struck gold upon discovering this forgotten story of love and madness. An American girl, Joyce McKinney, falls in love with Mormon Kirk Anderson. After he is sent to England to conduct missionary work, she becomes determined to win him back through kidnapping him and consummating their relationship. The story caused a scandal in the British press and catapulted Joyce to celebrity status. Amongst the drama and absurdity, a tabloid battle between the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror developed. Depending on which paper you read, Joyce McKinney was a sweet and innocent All-American girl who was simply in love, or a sex-crazed slut who controlled and dominated men. As one interviewee says, the truth probably lies somewhere in-between. And yet it’s not the truth that we’re after in this film; rather, it is the different accounts and perspectives of truth given. Joyce comes across as so honest and likable that you want to believe her story, despite the fact that most of what she affirms to be true is quite obviously delusion. Watching her, it is fascinating to discover the lies we tell ourselves in order to preserve our personal idea of reality. For Joyce, Kirk was her one true love and they, after all this time, are still destined to be together in this life or the next. While this may not be the actual case, her complete faith towards this truth ignites your desire to accept it anyway.

Completely centred upon its utterly mad yet endearing protagonist, Joyce is simply mesmerising to watch as she tells her story with the upmost romantic conviction. The interrotron, Morris’s camera with a two-way mirror that allows him and those he interviews to look at one another, enables Joyce to provide a surprisingly candid account of her unrequited love and the sacrifices she made to bring him back. Finding fame through the media’s attention, she became one of the first tabloid celebrities that are now omnipresent in today’s media, and also one of the first to fall victim to the bloodthirsty red tops that will go to any length to scoop the most scandalous story.

Her views are juxtaposed with others who knew her, including the journalists who exposed the story. Their anecdotes from the time, through the flamboyant language that they are accustomed to, are complimented by large superimposed texts that explode on to the screen, uttering words such as, ‘Spread-eagled’ and ‘Obsession.’ Rather than use his usual reconstructions to compliment the interviewee’s accounts, Morris uses archive footage, including some filmed by and starring Joyce, to bring her thoughts and feelings to life. These clips help anchor her story within a certain time and place, and yet also evoke a sense of loss as the former blonde beauty is contrasted with the older woman that is interviewed presently, a woman who has never married and has lived alone ever since Kirk left her.

Arguably the most important documentary filmmaker alive, Morris relentlessly uses the non-fiction form to examine the reflections of reality that constantly vie with one another. Joyce’s life appears a twisted postmodern fantasy. She acts as if she is the protagonist in her own story, a story that, crucially, lacks the obligatory Hollywood happy ending. After Joyce fails to win back Kirk, she returns to her family farm and films the surrounding countryside with a handheld camera, morosely stating, “nothing is happening.” Such a statement reveals more about Joyce’s life than all the media attention that has come before. When the cameras aren’t swarming around her, and the media hysteria has died down, we are left with a simple tale of unrequited love, longing and loneliness.

Watching this film brought to mind uncanny parallels with another tabloid story in the news this past month, that of the recently released Amanda Knox.

Like with Joyce McKinney, the newspapers leapt upon the sexually violent story and the public’s opinions were shaped by how the media dictated events. Knox is currently planning on writing and publishing her account of the whole ordeal. Joyce McKinney never got a real chance to do that, until now. What she tells might not necessarily be the truth, but it is the telling that we hold on to and remember.

Alfred Joyner

Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris, USA, 2010) is in UK cinemas 11/11/11

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