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54th BFI London Film Festival: Tabloid

“Initially appearing quite lightweight, Tabloid’s comedic pulse masks a faintly disturbing treatise on the gutter press…”


Directed by Errol Morris

In his new film Tabloid, acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris turns his intellect to a seemingly frivolous subject, especially given his previous works’ predilection for scrutinizing cold war architects and battlefield torturers, as well as saving innocent victims from death row in the likes of The Thin Blue Line, a piece widely regarded as one of the greatest non-fiction works committed to celluloid. In 1977, a young American woman was arrested in the South West of England for the alleged kidnap and rape of her former fiancé and lover Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon who had been spirited away to the UK from America to evade his impending nuptials to Joyce McKinney, a former Ms. Wyoming who had fallen in love with him at first sight. Joyce and an unusual cadre of companions travelled to the UK to free Kirk from this poisonous sect in her version of events, his side of things claiming that she kidnapped him at gunpoint, imprisoned him in a country cottage and proceeded to rape him for the following week. Joyce’s unusual life and its obscured surprises (this incident is just the beginning) are the chief culprits of a story that grows more bizarre and unusual as more of its details are exposed, the strange naturally progressing to the ridiculous as Tabloid interweaves Mormon sects, bondage sessions, cloned canines and the murky world of the tabloid gossip columns into its narrative, much of which will have you laughing out loud to Joyce’s colourful life and her frequently unique terms of phrase – ‘stuffing a marshmallow into a parking meter slot’ is one euphemism that’s going to stay with me for quite a while.

The film follows Morris’ usual template of numerous talking heads recalling their version of events, including an extensive interview with Joyce, who provides the spine of the film. These disclosures are fused with press clippings and archive footage culled from the seventies, although the central ‘victim,’ Kirk, declined to be interviewed for the picture. One is left with the impression that many of these testimonies are not exactly purer than snow, as Joyce is gradually revealed to be a somewhat eccentric, slightly mad but overall harmless figure who didn’t quite deserve the press notoriety that she engendered, by the same token someone so eager to sell their story to rival tabloids is not so easy to exonerate from complicit guilt in a caliginous freefall of smut, betrayal, and sensationalism.

As with many of the finest documentaries, one is left questioning the notion of an empirical truth hidden within the morass of allegations and counter-allegations, stories and counter-stories. With some of the central figures now dead, others mute and the survivors recollections of events diminishing as the decades fall away, this seems destined to be another unsolved mystery that will be taken to the grave. The two Daily Express figures are fairly odious with their cheerful tracking of the more lurid aspects to the tale, but the film counters this with the keystone-cops elements of Joyce and her companion’s abscission to Canada from the UK while previous boyfriends and paramours emerge from the shadows to cash in on the lucrative bandwagon.

Initially appearing quite lightweight. Tabloid’s comedic pulse masks a faintly disturbing treatise on the gutter press, when you consider the way that Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears have been scrutinised to the point of insanity and illegality over recent years; it appears that we haven’t evolved a great deal since Joyce’s scandalous behaviour over thirty years ago, and perhaps in the final analysis that is Tabloid’s most resigned conclusion.

John McEntee

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