This Shot Shows Absolutely Nothing in the Picture

It’s depressing that I even know this, we say, sighing. The names of Charlie Sheen’s ex wives and goddesses, the nature of Wiener's tweets, or, until recently, what’s on Steve Buscemi’s stoop. But maybe we should just give up on wincing. We all love a good story, after all, just not always when it’s about us.

Tabloid_01cEarl Morris’ film Tabloid is about this. In his excavation of – or perhaps that’s too deep a word – of the “case of the manacled Mormon”, Morris has done his, as he tweeted, “level-headed best to capture what Joyce” McKinney, a vivacious Southern blonde who apparently kidnapped her ex-boyfriend Kirk Anderson, a Mormon, tied him to a bed and forced him to have sex in a Devonshire cabin for a weekend in 1977, “believed happened.”

The British press of course could not resist this story and McKinney’s self described “Kodak moment,” what she calls her innocent attempt to rescue the man she loved from the “cult” of Mormonism, became fodder for a bit of a tabloid war between the Daily Express, the Mirror, and others. The former took her side, that a great passion had been crushed by the brainwashing Mormon church, while the latter took the time to dig up her nude bondage photos, running a new one on the cover every day for a week.

When McKinney, vivacious and arresting even now, was released on bail, “the sky lit up with flashbulbs – I was a celebrity.” She met Keith Moon at a party, had some glamorous fun. But then, as she tells it, the nude pictures came out, she was slandered, and then jumped bail and fled to the United States – disguised as a deaf mute on a false passport, of course.

McKinney doesn’t like Morris’ film, but likes to show up at screenings to set things right, telling one New York audience “it hurt me when you guys laughed.” But this woman knowingly invites laughter herself – quipping that forcing a man to have sex is like “sticking a marshmellow in a parking meter.” One review pointed out Morris use of B-Roll footage (seductive and scheming 50s housewives baking and dancing around domestic appliances) as undermining to her story ,but– if anything, McKinney is treated gently by Morris’ story telling.

Instead, the kitschy B-Roll serves as a reminder not of McKinney’s particular zanyness but of the way we can tend to see our own lives through the language, structures, and mythology of television and film. McKinney describes her weekend with Kirk as “a Kodak moment”, directly comparing it to a Zeferelli film, and describes leaving Kirk as Victoria Station as “like something from a movie.”

McKinney has been trying to control the narrative since the incident happened. She is still trying to finish the book she started over thirty years ago. She provided Morris with a promo for this unrealized book, where she wears a princess dress and reads from her tale of true love. There are other, darker clips from her period living with agoraphobia in the 1980s, where she would shoot the backyard and intone “This shot shows absolutely nothing in the picture.” Her anger at the tabloid media stems from the fact they stole the story from her, as she also accuses Morris of doing.

The two British tabloid reporters in the film more or less admit the truth has nothing to do with it, as one admits that “chains” sound so much better than “ropes” and that “spreadeagled [is such] a wonderful bondage word.” Everyone wanted to spin things their way: McKinney claims – not in the film – that the Mormon church sent PR spin doctors for damage control to further slander her name.

Most of us aren’t celebrities, and are largely in control of our own stories, or at least, never have the power of an actual newspaper or documentary filmmaker trying to tell them for us. But we are increasingly trying to make our own press, especially as the traditional press dies, whether we’re a writer managing his online “brand” via tweet war or a teenager living and dying by the approval and vitriol spewed around sites like Stickam, we’re all trying to manage our own story, and more and more of us can probably relate more than we’d like to McKinney’s frustration at being, as she claims, misunderstood.

“There’s an identity crisis when you read your own press,” McKinney told the audience at the New York event where she stormed the stage to chide Morris. We increasingly make our own press – what kind of crises does that lead to?