American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Ripped from today's headlines, Errol Morris's sensational "Tabloid" uncovers outrageous stories of sex, bondage, Mormons, kidnapping, cloning, drugging, buggery (or at least bugging) and betrayal circa 1977, and features more than one dog named Booger. The movie premiered almost a year ago, at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival--yet, between the surveillance scandals at Rupert Murdoch's gossip rags and the Tony-sweeping Trey Parker-Matt Stone missionary-position musical phenomenon "The Book of Mormon," "Tabloid" could hardly be more of-this-very-moment.
Given the timing of its release and the nature of its subject, you might say "Tabloid" suggests that history doesn't have to begin as tragedy and repeat itself as farce; it can be farce every time. The lurid reports recounted here swirl around Joyce McKinney, a blonde 1970s beauty queen (Miss Wyoming) with an IQ of 168 who goes all-out to win the man of her dreams, a clean-skinned Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. When they met, she says, "It was like in the movies." Long story short, she and a (besotted slave?) accomplice wind up accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing the object of her desire. The way Joyce tells it, her beloved suddenly disappears without explanation as they are planning their wedding. With the help of a private eye and a good platonic friend, she tracks him down in England, rescues him from his Mormon "cult" brainwashers, and takes him to a cottage in Devon where she ties him to a bed, ravishes him (consensually) for three wonderful days of fun, food and sex. And love, too. Preparing to give him a warm cinnamon-oil back rub, she rips off his Mormon underwear and burns the "smelly" garments in the fireplace, an act both practical and symbolic.
Others, including Kirk himself sometimes, choose to present the situation quite differently. Words like "abduction" and "male rape" are bandied about, not just in the press but in the courtroom. Depending on which tabloid you read (say, the Daily Express or the Daily Mirror), you might follow the story as "The Mormon Sex in Chains Case" or "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." One yellow journalist, who is quite fond of the eye-catching S&M connotations of the phrase "spread-eagled," admits that Joyce would probably say rope was used, but that "chains" is much better for headlines. (As he and others use these sensationalistic terms, they are splashed across the screen in screaming headline fonts: "OBSESSED"; "CHAINED!"; "SPREAD EAGLED"; "DOWN SLAVE!"; "GUILT"...) That Kirk was physically attached to a bed for sexual purposes seems to be something everyone can agree upon. But was his participation consensual? Joyce says he admitted in court that it was "more consensual" the third time than it was the first.
Nobody more relishes telling a juicy tale--preferably one with absurd twists and multiple contradictory points of view--than Errol Morris, and this one's a flat-out doozy. You couldn't make it up. The film's cheeky, splashy style expresses what a blast the filmmaker is having bouncing allegations and innuendos off one another, and his goofball giddiness is infectious. Morris's trademark present-day Interrotron interviews with the principals are intercut with animated scandal-sheet headlines, clippings and photographs, some of them carefully pasted (or scotch-taped) into scrapbooks as if they were treasured albums of tabloid memories. Broadcast video is presented on an old Zenith television in front of avocado-hued, diamond-patterned wallpaper. Home video, stock footage and archival films appear in a round-cornered frame in the center of the otherwise black screen, the jittery edges suggesting 8mm photography.
"Tabloid" has everything a fascinatingly salacious story requires and more--not just the kinky sex and layers of intrigue to keep you guessing about who's lying and who's telling whose version of the truth, but the humor, smarts, skill and sizzle to make it all irresistibly enthralling. Just because it has so much fun being naughty, though, doesn't mean it's nothing more than lightweight entertainment....
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