Here's a dilemma not many of us face. Given the choice, which one would you humiliate, the strange, sad, perhaps mentally ill woman unknown by most people, or the icy warmonger responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Americans and Southeast Asians?
Count me among those who wondered why Errol Morris didn't use his 2003 documentary The Fog of War to come down a little harder on its subject, Vietnam War-era defense secretary Robert McNamara, who was associated with so much devastation. What did anyone gain from hearing that arrogant man, then elderly, say in the film, "We all make mistakes"?
But Morris certainly comes down hard on Joyce McKinney, the outlandish subject of his new documentary, Tabloid. How does he do that? Largely by just letting her talk. In interviews, the Atlanta native comes across as delusional, paranoid, vindictive, petty, bitter and, pretty much, nuts. I saw the film last year at a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art screening that Morris attended. The audience laughed and laughed at this pathetic woman. I felt uncomfortable. This is a familiar mode for Morris, who turned the camera on similarly quirky people in his first documentary feature, 1978's Gates of Heaven.
Certainly McKinney is fascinating, and her story is undeniably juicy. In the 1970s, the former beauty queen traveled to the United Kingdom and either did or didn't abduct an American Mormon missionary and make him a sex slave. In response to the caper, the British tabloids staged a predictable frenzy, and McKinney enjoyed a period of celebrity, or at least notoriety. Years later, she briefly returned to tabloid prominence when she hired a Korean scientist to clone Booger, her pit bull.
Morris brings dazzling technique to Tabloid, a slick film that goes down easy. Cutesy animation and striking visual effects jazz up an already dynamic story. There are priceless elements, including vintage footage of McKinney reading from her writings. "Once upon a time, there was a little princess," she intones at the beginning of the film, prefiguring much apparent self-deception to come. McKinney is able to explain away just about every lurid, damning detail, including the nude photographs. Those were doctored, she says.
But McKinney's testimony isn't just defensive and self-serving. It's cocky and mean, and it makes for sometimes unpleasant viewing. She describes encountering her alleged victim at an airport, years after the event. By way of shaming him, she says he was working as a menial laborer - as a "doo doo dipper...someone who takes the doo doo off the back of the plane." She says that with a smirk, and Morris flashes the phrase "DOO DOO DIPPER" on the screen, in case anyone missed it. But is there actually anything wrong with that kind of work? Why are we being prompted to laugh at people who do it? In the same sequence, McKinney gets in a nasty dig at the man's wife. "Overweight," she sniffs.
McKinney also has some unpleasant barbs for the Mormon Church, which she calls a cult. Morris, happy to play along, shares a clip of what appear to be cartoon Mormons flying to other planets. The MMoCA audience roared at that. Yes, Mormon theology involves other planets, as well as special underwear, also mocked in Tabloid. I look forward to the time when people stop snickering at Mormon teachings, which strike me as no more goofy than those of other, older major religions. (You're saying the bread and wine become FLESH and BLOOD?!)
I grow weary of condescending documentaries. Tabloid is one. Another is Winnebago Man, which screened here last year. It's a less accomplished film that dragged out of obscurity a cranky, unwitting YouTube star, now blind and feeble, for the purpose of ridiculing him.
Much more to my liking is Madison filmmaker Nathan Clarke's Wrestling for Jesus, which screened at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival. It's about working-class Southerners who run a ramshackle Christian wrestling promotion, complete with spandex, masks and altar calls. I braced myself for smugness, and I was pleasantly surprised when the documentary turned out to be, yes, funny, but also interested in its subjects as real people with real problems, as opposed to caricatures to be skewered for easy amusement.