Errol Morris is a critically acclaimed documentary maker, known for giving his talking heads plenty of rope…to either hang themselves or pull themselves to safety — it’s up to them. His 2003 Oscar-winner The Fog of War is his best known effort, a portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the War in Vietnam among other problematic projects. That film gave Mcnamara enough screen time to make his case, and as you might predict, one leaves the film regarding him as some combination of philosopher, devoted public servant and war criminal.

In Morris’s new film Tabloid (opening in New York and other cities today), the film-maker takes the same tack with an even dicier subject. An American woman has made the British tabloid cycle not once but TWICE, each time for incredibly surreal stories. In 1977, Joyce McKinney, a former beauty pageant winner, nude model and prostitute (and by her own account, God-fearing Christian, virgin and genius with a 168 IQ), allegedly flew to England, kidnapped and raped the object of her obsession, a dumpy Mormon missionary she’d met while he was working at a Taco Bell. Intimations of S & M, and the complex nature of the events (tailor made for office arguments around the water cooler) kept the story on the front pages for weeks. Is McKinney a deranged, decadent slut, or a deranged, clean-cut All-American girl? (I think there’s no question that she’s deranged). Is Kirk Anderson (the man in the story) a brainwashed victim of a weird cult (as McKinney charges), a liar (after all, how can a man be raped, when consummating the sexual act depends on his, um, cooperation?) , or a complete innocent bystander? The answers seem to resolve themselves into one big “all of the above” in this hallucinatory portrait.

McKinney is allowed to speak at length on her own behalf for the first time since her famous London trial. She comes off as a mix of disingenuous and delusional, with a chilling cheerfulness reminiscent of the girls from the Manson family, or Kathy Bates’ character in Misery. But, interestingly, she’s not the only “unreliable witness” Morris gives us. There are also a pair of reporters for rival tabloids, each of whom had and have  a financial stake in telling the story a certain way. There’s an ex-member of the Mormon Church just itching to expose its quirks and secrets. The only balanced commentator in the film is a pilot who says McKinney hired him to fly her to England. He seems a credible witness and his testimony is damning, but given the universe we’re in (which happens to be reality) you can’t help but start to wonder — what’s his angle?

And hence we get down to the film’s title. Tabloid is not just about this particular story, it’s about how we experience information nowadays. Everyone with an agenda, every element distorted (exaggerated or downplayed depending on what type of spin is required). What’s real, a lie, a combination of the two?

Because of this approach, many of the details of the story are elusive. What are the definitive facts? It’s all hearsay and testimony. You may find yourself (as I just did) googling to get more details, especially about McKinney’s background and early years. I couldn’t find anything.

I mentioned at the top of the story that McKinney figured in two tabloid stories. So here’s the other one. Over the years, McKinney seems to have done with her unrequited love what many such lonelyhearts do: transferred it over to her pets. When her beloved dog Booger passed away in 2008 she sent some of his tissue (and $150,000) to a doctor in South Korea, and had him cloned. Five times. When the press inevitably came calling, she gave them a different name, but some people thought they recognized her, making for more speculation and mystery (which the film now definitively clears up). For someone who has become a reported agoraphobic, McKinney sure does like attention. And over the next several months she ought to be in hog heaven, because more attention is just what she’s gonna get!

Addendum: Apparently she has! See article in today’s New York Times. Also, I concur with the infallible J. Hoberman in this week’s Village Voice it gives me a queasy feeling when the film-maker doesn’t hold his subject’s feet to the fire when they prevaricate. Joyce is clearly a dangerous charmer — some people (ones who are weak and not very bright, perhaps) will be susceptible to her wiles. At, any rate it opens locally today at the Lincoln Plaza and the IFC Center.

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