New on DVD: Tabloid (2010)

Tabloid finds heavy-duty documentarist Errol Morris happily slumming. And boy, is he having fun.

The maker of such noteworthy non-fiction films as Gates of Heaven (pet cemeteries), Mr. Death (a Holocaust denier), The Thin Blue Line (prosecutorial malfeasance in Texas) and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War (Robert McNamara), Morris tends to gravitate toward weighty subject matter.

But with Tabloid he delves into a lurid, torn-from-the-headlines scandal to reveal the face of a true American eccentric.

Morris’ subject is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen from North Carolina who in 1977 set off a media feeding frenzy when she and several confederates traveled to England and kidnapped her former boyfriend, a young Morman doing missionary work.

She tied her beloved to a bed in a rented farmhouse and desperately attempted to consummate their love. Apparently the nether regions of her Utah-bred paramour were uncooperative.

After several days of this “honeymoon” they learned that a nationwide manhunt was underway, and Joyce’s beau called the cops to report that he was okay.

Was he really a kidnap victim? A willing participant (“She made me do it”)?

In any case Joyce was arrested and Britain’s tabloid papers took over. It became the “case of the manacled Mormon.” Was it possible for a woman to rape a man?

The bulk of Tabloid consists of various subjects — especially Joyce McKinney — talking directly into the camera. In other hands this might be boring, but Morris’ sly editing and the generally high level of raconteurship makes for energetic, hugely entertaining viewing.

Now 60, Joyce remains a deep-fried Southern eccentric (“barking mad” is how a British journalist describes her) with a stream-of-consciousness delivery packed with hilarious asides and a bottomless reservoir of aw-shucks self justification.

She paints herself as a woman still in love with that one special man (although others describe him as a fat bore), as a true romantic, as a pure soul.

In her eyes she was rescuing her boyfriend (Kirk Anderson, who doesn’t appear on screen) from a crazy cult.

Apparently in the intervening years Joyce has done nothing to inform herself about the religion of the man she claims to still love ... when discussing Mormonism she exhibits the amazed incredulity of a Victorian explorer stumbling across a pagan sex ritual in the African bush.

On the other hand, one of Morris’ subjects is a former Mormon whose descriptions of the weirder aspects of the faith — like wearing specially blessed underwear that imparts invulnerability, or the belief of some Mormons that after death they will become gods and rule their own planets — makes Joyce seem fairly rational.

Back in the day Joyce was a beautiful young woman who could talk men into just about anything (witness the testimony of the private pilot she enticed into flying her goofball “rescue” crew to England). Ironically, though, she was and still may be a virgin.

This despite the discovery of hundreds of photos documenting her pre-scandal career as a nude model and S&M specialist.

Tabloid encourages us to find amusement in the self-deluding rantings of a woman who may have serious mental problems.

But Joyce seems to be having a high old time discussing her checkered past, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Rack this one up as a guilty pleasure.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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