The confessional documentary is as morally gray as a tabloid and as potentially colorless as a broadsheet. If a subject is made to play the fool, whose fault is it? Are they marionettes or the scene-stealing stars of their own one-man shows? Embedded in those answers is our permission to exercise an alienable right that we in the audience want to, but aren’t sure whether to, indulge in: the right to laugh. Is the subject self-aware or has he or she been psychically denuded by the camera—or, in Errol Morris’s case, the Interrotron—and, by extension, the person sitting behind it? Or is it maybe a smidgen of both? Watching Morris’s Tabloid, I laughed like a hyena at the sacrifice of a boar; Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming and a natural camera presence, seems to have been eaten alive by Miss Piggy, and she spouts the same line about a pasty pudge-ball Mormon (Kirk Anderson) that the Muppet reserves for her beloved, befuddled Kermie. Morris is too smart and experienced a filmmaker to fall into the traps I’ve set for him—he seems almost at the mercy of his unreliable narrator, and he foments the resultant discord as only an artist can; but then McKinney is not as hard a target as a seasoned old pol like Robert McNamara. Or is she? Both the former beauty queen and the secretary of state who transacted the Vietnam War know how to schmooze the cam and cool a hot mic. But I’m pretty sure McNamara wasn’t off his rocker.
The title refers to the venue in which McKinney became a bonafide celebrity. A native of North Carolina who commanded the pageant circuit from an early age, she somehow finds herself, by the mid-1970s, in Utah—and, so she claims, ignorant of Mormonism and its customs. In what might have been a wet dream for legions of other eligible bachelors, she aims her obsessiveness at Anderson, a virginal evangelist who, by her account, punked out on her—leaving Salt Lake City for London to fulfill the same obligation that the young Mitt Romney did when he sought to make Mormon converts in France. (Anderson declined to participate in the making of this movie.) McKinney soon comes into money, by means which are not altogether verifiable and which I will leave to the film to disclose, and uses it to kidnap him; tie him to a bedpost at a cottage in pastoral Devon; and, depending on who you ask, rape him. Repeatedly. When Anderson, who has been freed from his cage like a canary into the dubious solace of smog, testifies against her—she thinks due to doctrinaire bullying from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—McKinney ends up behind bars. But also on the front page. An innocent abroad, with a gift for gab that overlaps with the poetry of romantic incoherence, McKinney’s antics make her the golden girl of the piss-yellow press—which, as is its wont, micturates on her image as soon as it becomes expedient to.
Like a police dog’s nose, one’s mind automatically slides to the ignominious News of the World scandal from last summer; and, by interviewing two representatives from rival papers that profiled the “Mormon sex-in-chains case” back in the ’70s, Tabloid gives the American viewer a little insight into these thankfully alien, and hopefully moribund, institutions. But I couldn’t bring myself to hate those two crusty old gents, whose intentions probably differ—but overlap—with Morris’s. And though that’s not the most enviable piece of real estate within the Venn diagram, it’s partly exonerated by another recent affair that this movie reminded me of: the Pyrrhic “winning” of Charlie Sheen. He carved his sick self up and stuffed it down our throats. For the paparazzi, it was a veritable free lunch—for weeks—so, as contemptible as their exploitation of a mentally ill man was, he was literally asking them for it, and at what seemed to be a mostly conscious level. He profited from his own breakdown, so all parties were parasites: perfect symbiosis. McKinney’s strange tics may be the product of an imbalanced mind, but she seems to have used her eccentricities to seduce the tabloid reporters, just as she seems to be performing for Morris. Next to Sheen, her self-exploitation seems sweet, even quaint. To some degree, she still sees herself as an innocent, which probably can’t be said for the minus one of Two and a Half Men, who seems to relish in his raunchy guilt.