Morley Dreams of a Life

Rejoice, re: Joyce.

Ghost in the machine ...
Ghost in the machine ...

A review?

It's like the post-mortem examination
of somebody's work, isn't it?

(Although we'd suggest that
a completed work comes fully to life
only when it's being experienced.)

And if the work's own body consists of
a sort of lyrical post-mortem examination,
a well-structured narrative that, completed,
brings a person once lost to death
as fully back to life as art will allow?


This review doesn't need to focus on the pieced-together life
and even more mysterious death of Joyce Carol Vincent,
the subject of Carol Morley's first feature-length documentary film Dreams of a Life.
This review doesn't need to, because Morley & her cast & crew already do a superlative job of it.

You should know that Joyce, a young and attractive woman who preferred,
it seems, to conform her life to the shape of others', died alone in a cheap London bedsit
where her corpse wasn't discovered until three years later – TV set still going.
That's the sort of WTF? situation that can initially draw you in and maybe spur you
to learn more – as much as Morley will reveal with facts or with suppositions –
of this woman and of the relationships she formed, the unfulfilled potentials of her life,
the possible reasons for her death.

That's all well and good; the lives of strangers
are often fascinating, regardless of who they are.
"Listen long enough," as the poet David Jewell has said,
"and everyone is interesting and slightly destroyed."

But this review prefers to briefly consider Morley's methods
of relaying the information in filmic format, and it'll try to do that without gushing.

Dreams of a Life features many talking-head interviews with Joyce's
left-behind friends and lovers; several panning shots of the texts of newspaper accounts
of the discovery of her body; scenes enacted (with Zawe Ashton hauntingly effective as Joyce)
as they could have happened, more or less; some (also re-enacted) footage of the hazmat-suited
cleaning crew sanitizing Joyce's disheveled and dust-covered bedsit. The array of perspectives
isn't surprising: They're a few of the basic building blocks often used to construct narratives –
especially documentary narratives.

But, first, all of them are exquisitely rendered;
and the way Morley weaves the parts together is a joy to behold,
one view shifting or fading into another in engaging sequence,
in rhythms that are as smooth and compelling as the R&B songs Joyce used to sing.

A film like this, using such a combination of illustrative gambits,
could easily wind up a horrible thing: too much here, too little there,
unintentionally jarring and clunky and flawed with mawkish sentiment.
To make none of those missteps is impressive enough;
to achieve (as Carol Morley certainly does here) the potential
of powerful communication with such cinematic precision and grace is,
well, all our pieced-together lives should be this artfully honored.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at

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Dreams of a Life, Carol Morley, SXSW, Joyce Carol Vincent, Zawe Ashton, David Jewell, London bedsit, documentary film, SXSW film, corpse undiscovered for three years

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