Back in October I saw a preview of Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life at the London Film Festival. The film is an attempt by Morley to piece together the life-story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38 year old who lay decomposed and undiscovered for three years after her death – the TV and Christmas tree lights still on.
Dreams of a Life clearly has a great deal to say to anyone interested in contemporary relationships and urban isolation. But it should also be of interest to historians. Like so many documentaries (see my previous piece on Waltz with Bashir), it is intrinsically concerned with questions of evidence, interpretation, truth and memory.
Morley discovers that Joyce was bubbly and beautiful, surrounded by friends and lovers. Yet inconsistencies and holes in the recollections of her friends trouble and disturb this impression. Did she deliberately hide particular sides of herself? Did they only see what they wanted to see? Or are they being selective when speaking to a camera?
Throughout the film we are made aware of the instability of oral testimony. In a particularly striking instance, one interviewee writes to Morley to correct his story of a particular day – now revealing that he had been punched by Joyce’s ex-boyfriend, a central character in the film. This irrevocably changes our impression of the ex and the way he presents his own story. Yet, it so nearly remained hidden.
Some of the key people in Joyce’s life (her sisters, a mysterious fiancée) were not willing to be interviewed. Others presumably remain unknown, even to Morley. This leaves us wondering how different our impressions of Joyce’s life might look if different people had come forward – or if some had been more or less frank on camera. It is striking that only one person (an ex-boyfriend) is at all critical of her. He appears bitter; but is perhaps simply honest.
Morley painstakingly recovers the contradictory strands of Joyce’s life but makes no attempt to artificially reconcile them. In letting the piece stand as it is, she forces us to think about the traces and impressions we leave behind us and to ask how well we can be known by others – whether friends and family, historians or filmmakers.