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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

1 June

Brigham Young born, 1801

On this day in 1801, Brigham Young was born, in Vermont, USA. This son of farming folk with four brothers worked as a travelling carpenter and tinker before marrying in 1824. He had become a Methodist in 1823, though was drawn to the Mormon faith when he first read the Book of Mormon on its publication in 1830. Two years later he joined the church, becoming a missionary and spreading the word in Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1844 Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints movement (of which the Mormon church is a part) died, after being attacked by a mob while in prison. Young made an eloquent grab for power and became church president in 1847. However, Young’s position was constantly challenged by other claimants to the title, from other branches of the church. In addition Mormons in general were treated with suspicion, on account of their belief in polygamy, among other things. And so Young led the “faithful” on an exodus out of Missouri to the promised land of Salt Lake City, Utah, where he also became the area’s first governor and superintendent of American Indian affairs. Young remained at the head of the church until he was effectively deposed as governor by intervention by the US Army at the orders of the US President James Buchanan, whose “Utah Expedition”, designed to bring this theocratic region into line with the rest of the democratic USA, eventually became the year-long Mormon War. Young died in 1877, leaving behind 56 children, born to 16 of his 55 wives.

Tabloid (2010, dir: Errol Morris)

It’s true that, as one user review on the IMDB states, this is one of Errol Morris’s lesser efforts. But then we’re ranking Tabloid, about a strange newspaper story from the 1970s, alongside The Fog of War, his brilliant documentary about Robert McNamara, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary for Defense, or The Thin Blue Line, his even more brilliant polemic about a wrongful murder conviction in Dallas. So let’s get a bit of perspective.

As to what the film is about, well that too is in the “lesser effort” category, being the strange tale of an American woman called Joyce McKinney and her infatuation with a Mormon, Kirk Anderson. How she followed him to England in 1977 and held him hostage for several days, using him as a sexual plaything, a use that, presumably, Anderson went along with.

Morris is interested in the bare bones of what happened – how McKinney fell desperately for the chaste Kirk and then kidnapped him. But he’s also keen to work through the attitude of the newspapers that reported it gleefully on their front pages, day after day. The film is called Tabloid, not Joyce, or Kirk. And so we meet two key players – Peter Tory, an engaging newspaperman from the posh end of the pile, all suaveté and handmade shirts. And Kent Gavin, more your oily rag, an old school photographer with a line in investigation that puts most reporters to shame. It’s Gavin who teased out McKinney’s back story, how she managed to amass enough money to fly to England, where she pulled off her audacious stunt.

The papers thought it was hilarious, of course, a man being held hostage and used as a sex slave by a woman whose mouth was a gift to the industry – “I loved him so much that I would ski naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he asked me to,” being the front page quote that shifted newspapers back in the day. The concept of a man being raped was alien back then (indeed no law about male rape was then on the statute books).

Kirk is notably absent from the film, so we’ll never know if he was in fact kidnapped (the official story, hotly denied by McKinney) or whether he simply fancied a break from the strictures of the Mormon life. What we do get is McKinney, who is vastly entertaining and could compete in the talking Olympics, giving her side of events, as well as her meandering thoughts on animal welfare – Morris seems to have become interested in her as a result of a 2008 story about McKinney going to Korea to have her dog cloned (this is the man who gave us the pet cemetery film Gates of Heaven, let’s not forget).

Since Tabloid was released, McKinney has been vocal that Morris stitched her up. What she’s complaining about is that Morris uses Kirk’s absence – brilliant documentarian that he is – to build a “did she/didn’t she” narrative, bolstered by interviews with a former Mormon and various other parties who were involved at the periphery. McKinney has a point, to a point. But from a viewer’s perspective, and the IMDB user is entirely right here, there is a real lack of material. Morris works his guts out with archive newsreel and home movie footage trying to disguise the fact Tabloid is really very little more than one talking head after another. And, using techniques the tabloid press would recognise, he builds his story, almost out of nothing. It’s a cracker.

Why Watch?

  • Every Errol Morris documentary is worth watching
  • Joyce McKinney is an interviewer’s godsend
  • A tiny insight into Mormon life
  • An examination of tabloid newspaper practices and mores

Tabloid – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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