Saving One Man From Mormonism or Coercion? Inside Errol Morris' New Documentary 'Tabloid'
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It’s tempting to call Tabloid, Errol Morris’s new film, an exceedingly strange movie. But it’s not a strange movie: it’s a conventional enough documentary, composed primarily of filmed interviews, with occasional clips of old film or TV footage, and some innovative use of old tabloid newspapers as exposition and transition. No, what’s weird about Tabloid is the story at its heart. Joyce McKinney, the subject of the film, wants viewers to see it as a tragic fairy tale, in which she, the beautiful princess, must rescue her handsome prince after he is spirited off and ensorceled by an evil ogre–in this case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
McKinney became a household name in Britain in 1977 after her arrest for kidnapping Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon serving as a missionary in southern England. McKinney claims that she and Anderson were engaged in Utah when he disappeared one day without a trace. After a private investigator tracked him to England, McKinney hired a pilot to fly her, a friend, and a bodyguard to London in order to rescue her love from the “cult” that had kidnapped him. Anderson, who was six foot four (and, some accounts say, pudgy and pear-shaped) claimed he was chloroformed and abducted from a meetinghouse in Surrey; McKinney, a petite beauty queen from North Carolina, insisted he went willingly.
Morris' film The Thin Blue Line helped free a man wrongly convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, while The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara earned Morris an Oscar for best documentary. In Tabloid, though, he doesn’t attempt to get at the truth behind McKinney’s story as much as he shows that the truth is impossible–in part because people have very strong reasons for lying to themselves, and believing the lies they tell. “You know, you can tell a lie long enough, til you believe it,” McKinney says to explain why her lost lover’s account of events differs from hers–without realizing that she also indicts herself.
In any event, McKinney and Anderson ended up in a remote cottage in Devon for “three days of fun, food and sex.” McKinney said she sacrificed her virginity to undo the brainwashing that had taken Kirk from her; Anderson said he was manacled to the bed and repeatedly raped. McKinney laughs off any suggestion that a woman can rape a man: “that’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter,” she says. “A guy either wants to has sex, or he doesn’t. Either he has an erection or he doesn’t.” The film doesn’t seriously question her facile either/or. But just as flaccidity isn’t a sure sign that a man has no interest in sex, neither does an erection constitutes irrefutable proof that a man is psychologically willing and eager to have sexual intercourse, however ready his physiology might be. Arousal does not equal consent.
One thing, however, that requires not only consent but considerable planning and preparation is a Mormon mission. However coerced by societal pressures young men might feel, they still don’t end up on missions unless they volunteer and cooperate with the process. Because missions are so crucial to the maturation and acculturation of Mormon men, they typically tell everyone where they’re going as soon as they find out. If Anderson went on his mission without telling McKinney, it can only be because he didn’t want her to know–though why he wanted to keep it from her is another matter entirely. McKinney said she was dealing with two Kirks. Kirk 1 was the fiancé she knew and loved; Kirk 2 was a brainwashed cultist repressed to the point of impotence and dressed in ugly sacred underwear she had to rip from his body and burn. The idea that Anderson might have wanted, in any way, to be Kirk 2, was and remains inconceivable to McKinney. She cannot tolerate any version of her story but her own–and every single bit of it is her story. It’s certainly not the story of the pilot she hired, Jackson Shaw, charmed by a buxom blond who’d strip nude at the beach and conduct business in a see-through blouse and no bra. It’s not even Anderson’s story, so in some ways it’s just as well that he declined, quite understandably, to be interviewed for the film.