Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Joyce Vincent was Here: Dreams of a Life

Joyce Vincent was almost a footnote—the sort of ghoulish factoid that gets recycled to demonstrate some point about the disconnectedness of the information age.  Yet, there was more to Vincent than the three years her body laid undiscovered in her London studio apartment.  Carol Morley reconstructs her story in the hybrid-documentary Dreams of a Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

It was an article that struck a chord with tabloid readers.  For three years, Vincent’s landlord, creditors, friends, and four sisters never came looking for her.  When she was finally discovered, her television was still running, but her body had literally decomposed into the floor.  As a result, her cause of death remains undetermined.  Many more questions persist, such as where were those sisters, who not so surprisingly declined to appear in Morley’s film.

However, many of Vincent’s friends, including two former lovers who were once deeply enthralled with her, talk openly and earnestly about the tragically-fated woman.  By most accounts, she was a charming person who at one time held responsible positions in finance.  While nothing about Vincent’s life becomes “clear,” per se, it seems safe to conclude her inner demons spurred her to push people away, based on the testimony Morley collects.

The picture of Vincent that emerges is incomplete, but far more complicated than the sensational headlines would suggest.  This was a woman who once had entrée into the world of pop music, bringing Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela into her story as minor supporting characters.

Combining brutally intimate interviews segments with reenactments of episodes from her still murky life (primarily featuring Zawe Ashton as the adult Vincent and Cornell S. John as her problematic father), Dreams stretches the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, at the risk of coming across like cable true crime programming.  Yet the humanistic ethos driving the film keeps it safely on course.  Indeed, the genuine emotions expressed by Vincent’s friends, lovers, and coworkers are rather overpowering at times.

Ironically, Dreams sounds great, featuring funky instrumental themes composed by Barry Adamson as well as many touchstone songs from the era, even including a nicely soulful demo Vincent herself cut (how sad is that?).  Hearing her voice is actually rather spooky.

Sensitively helmed by Morley, Dreams is always compassionate and never exploitative.  It also acts as a sharp corrective to the reductive impulse that would superficially recast Vincent’s fate into a cautionary tale for the internet age.  It may well be that as well, but first and foremost, it is a story that should be told for its own sake.  To Morley’s credit, Dreams powerfully illustrates that point.  It might sound depressingly, but in a way, the film is quite life-affirming, by virtue of its commitment to documenting Vincent’s life for posterity.  Unusually empathetic, Dreams of a life is highly recommended when it opens this Friday (8/3) in New York at the IFC Center.