Oh, Narcissus: Joyce McKinney and the art of self-mythologizing

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“Booger is going to give himself in Christ-like love for me.”
Joyce McKinney about her dog

The late, great newspaper columnist Molly Ivins once explained that if you want an idea of how slippery the truth can be, ask 10 different car accident witnesses what happened. It is this very ambiguity of truth and memory that fascinates in the work of Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. No matter what the subject, you don’t see his films to get a clear picture of what happened. Instead, you get the stories people tell about what happened … and, ultimately, themselves. Whether it’s a Holocaust denier, an Abu Ghraib prison guard, Robert McNamara or a topiary artist, Morris’ movies revel in ambiguity and the art of self-mythologizing.
Enter Joyce McKinney, a woman whose entire adult life seems readymade for the tabloids that ended up hounding her, and whose unrelenting desire to spin self-promoting fables are as amusing as they are disturbing. Morris puts the former Miss Wyoming before his Interrotron and, in one sitting, gets the sensationalist skinny on the “Case of the Manacled Mormon.” It’s a helluva yarn.
In love with a lumpy Mormon missionary, McKinney traveled to England in 1977, snatched him from the Church of Latter Day Saints, then spent a weekend trying to deprogram him from their influence by screwing his brains out. The Mormon cried rape, the authorities threw Joyce in jail, and the British tabloids went ape shit. With the top two London rag sheets squeezing the story for every sordid ounce they could get, McKinney quickly became a celebrity, partying with the cast of Saturday Night Fever, and even upstaging Joan Collins at her own movie premiere. Eventually Joyce fled back to the United States, disappearing from public view, only to re-emerge decades later in a story that involves the second great love of her life. (I’ll leave the details as a surprise).
Of course, McKinney gets the lion’s share of Tabloid’s spotlight, weaving her obsessive, it-just-keeps-getting-weirder tale with such conviction and charm that you can’t help but want to believe her. Quick-witted and more than a little deranged, she displays all the navel-gazing narcissism of a Jersey Shore cast member. It comes as no surprise then that, in a ’70s promotional commercial for her “tell all” memoir, Joyce compares her story to, yup, Narcissus.
In contrast, Morris interviews the lead “journalists” from the two tabloids, capturing the depths of their rivalry, and their unrepentant lack of ethics. Whether it’s the Daily Express’ choice to uncritically embrace Joyce’s version of what happened or the Daily Mirror’s decision to dig into her hidden past, revealing (perhaps dubiously) her S&M model past — which the paper may or may not have run doctored photos to illustrate — Morris uses archival footage, movie collages and cheeky screen titles to subtly contradict and question his subjects’ smarmy claims.
Noticeably missing from Tabloid, however, is McKinney’s romantic obsession Kirk Anderson … or anyone who knew him.
Not since 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has Morris been this quirky — and cagey. Tabloid happily indulges in each tawdry twist and turn, even as it offers up a timely commentary on media sensationalism, our preoccupation with celebrity, and each person’s manipulative need to lay claim to the truth. The celebrated filmmaker has created a meta-tabloid of sorts, surrendering to the idea that the truth is absurdly unknowable. And even though his portrait of Joyce is affectionate, there’s an air of condescension about the whole affair. Morris seems to delight in the self-aggrandizing claims of his subjects, prodding us to chuckle at their delusions, obsessions, and hypocrisies.
But if Tabloid’sultimate thesis is that the truth is impenetrably subjective, that all of history is the Rashomon-like chronicle of unreliable witnesses, then one is prompted to ask: Why should I care? And doesn’t it also call into question the deeper relevance of Morris’ other films, suggesting, not only thematic redundancy, but the self-absolution of an artist who claims no responsibility for the veracity of his own work? After all, if all things are epistemological, then the line between fact and fiction depends solely on where you stand. That a film like Tabloid can both vex and entertain so expertly speaks to Morris’ unique position as a documentary filmmaker.

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