No matter how outré the subject, how clever the editing or how curious the visuals, the documentaries of Errol Morris usually come down to one thing: our abiding fascination with someone telling a story.
The key talking head in his latest, Tabloid, belongs to Joyce McKinney. In 1977, the former Miss Wyoming tracked a former boyfriend to England, engineered his kidnapping at gunpoint, chained (or perhaps merely tied) him to a bed, and spent the weekend having sex. She was arrested and jailed, but then fled the country and returned to Los Angeles a tabloid celebrity.
But why did all this happen? Under the relentless gaze of Morris' camera, the self-assured and still-vivacious McKinney contends she was saving her man, Kirk Anderson, from the "cult" of Mormonism. She calls the bondage weekend their "honeymoon." But while Anderson declined to be interviewed, other participants, witnesses and observers also get their say, including: the bemused charter pilot who flew McKinney and accomplices to England; a young ex-Mormon dishing dirt on the church; and a couple cynical tabloid journos, including an old British gossip columnist who's precisely as reptilian as you'd hope from an old British gossip columnist.
These perspectives and McKinney's often contradict one another, and things only get messier halfway through the film, when Morris suddenly reveals McKinney's alleged background as a sex worker. There are pictures, but she says they're faked, and as in Morris's The Fog of War (featuring Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara), the perceived credibility of the interviewee serves as something of a Rorschach for audience beliefs.
"You can tell a lie long enough until you believe it," says McKinney. She's talking about someone else, but we're invited to turn the observation back on its maker. Tabloid, true to its newsprint namesakes, is fast-paced and wickedly entertaining, with words flashing on the screen ("OBSESSED") alongside repurposed cartoons about Mormon theology and old home movies of McKinney framed in vintage TV consoles.
It all goes to buttress (and to simultaneously critique) McKinney's self-image as an "all-American girl" and "incurable romantic." And then there's her strange and sad life after the scandal, which involves her attempts to clone her beloved pit-bull mix, Booger. Whether she succeeds is less poignant than the fact that a woman who claims an IQ of 168 can't see any connection between the obsessiveness that sent her to England, armed, and the neediness that left her unable to surrender a pet dog.
Directed by Errol Morris
Starts Fri., Aug. 26. Harris Theater