After a detour into more serious territory with “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” Errol Morris returns to his lighter side with another of the documentaries about quirky, driven people he’s frequently spotlighted. Of course, as usual the filmmaker’s concentration on one oddball specimen of humanity, while amusing in itself, also acts as an entrée to consideration of a broader, more significant issue—in this case, the nature of sensationalism in media and its effect on journalistic standards.
In “Tabloid” Morris’ subject is Joyce McKinney, who back in 1977 became a weird celebrity in the British press when she followed a man she’d fallen in love with in Salt Lake City to England and either kidnapped or rescued him from the Mormon church, for which he was performing his missionary duty. The two went off to an isolated house in Devonshire, where he was either held prisoner and effectively raped by her, or—as she claims—had an entirely happy and consensual few days together before he returned to the Mormon fold. McKinney, a former beauty pageant princess with a coquettish air, was arrested and held in jail until her arraignment, smuggling messages out to the press and public, after which she fled the country to avoid trial.
In collaboration with editor Grant Surmi and designer-animator Elastic, as well as cinematographer Robert Chappell and composer John Kusiak, Morris tells this strange story through a combination of in-your-face graphics, archival stills and footage (with period TV material often shown on a cutout of an old-style set), and interviews—with McKinney especially, but also with a pilot who was one of her original “gang” (though he quickly dropped out of the enterprise), two reporters from rival tabloids who covered the story, and a Mormon apostate (who offers some insider nuggets about the church that might make Mitt Romney blanch). Kirk Anderson, the object of her affection—or more properly obsession—declined to be interviewed, so Morris must be content with a few glimpses of the burly fellow in old footage, one moment of which shows him driving away in a (somehow appropriate) Cougar.
Morris is also able to cap his portrait of this very unusual lady with another tale of her obsession—this time a much more recent one involving a pit bull named Booger. That introduces one last interview subject, a Korean cloning expert.
Like so many Morris documentaries, this one is fascinating, whimsically humorous and poignant, all at once. It focuses on a subject who’s undoubtedly a peculiar example of our species, but by doing so tells us something about us all.