Errol Morris found the subject of his new documentary Tabloid in the pages of the Boston Globe. To British eyes the Globe is one of those American broadsheets that sticks obdurately to high-minded journalistic principles> Principles that are a world away from those of our much scorned British tabloids. Here’s a question though. Don’t get me wrong, principles are great and all, but where was the Globe when it came to breaking the tale of the Manacled Mormon?
Tabloid retells the story of Joyce McKinney, a woman who gained notoriety in 1977 when she flew into England from the US and apparently abducted a young man (the Mormon in question) before absconding with him to Devon and tying him to a bed. There was sex involved, and what followed next was a classic tale of British tabloids falling over each other to get McKinney’s story and stitch up their rivals. The full details of the story can be found here and here.
There’s a nice twist in the final half hour when (Spoiler of event that was international news at the time alert) McKinney re-emerges into the media spotlight as the owner of the world’s first cloned puppy. It’s a bonkers passage that suddenly introduces a Korean geneticist to the roster of interviewees which, up until that point, had largely consisted of jaded British hacks..
The pooch passage provides an amusing end to a movie which really needed it. Much of the criticism of Tabloid has centred around whether Mackinnon’s story is actually strong enough in itself, or revealing enough of human nature in a broader sense, to justify spending 90 minutes talking about it. A parade of flashy cuts, and visual tricks (not to mention the frequent use of unusual archive footage, the stock in trade of British doco-provocateur Adam Curtis), don’t help to dispel that feeling.
A broader problem with the film, particularly in these days of polemical documentaries, is that it’s hard to get at what, if anything, Morris wants to say in Tabloid. I’d expected a coruscating attack on a trade without morals, but generally the Brits are treated respectfully. There are gags spun from their unusual language (Morris seems particularly tickled by the word ‘spreadeagled’) but generally the hacks come across as smart, if devious professionals. As for McKinney, it’s hard to take her seriously, but even if you think she’s guilty of the things she claims to be innocent of, it’s difficult to get that worked up about it.
Perhaps, rather than an expose of an industry or any individual, this movie was actually more interested in relaying to its audience a culture; that of the British. The fascination with the language, the deference to the raffish Daily Express columnist Tory, the gleeful reprinting of quaint English postcards, Morris seemed to find it all quite fascinating. To me, however, it seemed trite and familiar. That said, I do live in the middle of it.
Tabloid did at least teach me one thing however. All that the amusement at our obscure British words helps at least partially explain why half the people over here don’t understand a word I’m saying.