Dreams of a Life Fizzles Out on all Levels

Directed and Written by Carol Morley
Dogwoof Productions, 95 minutes, not-rated

When is a mystery not a mystery, a documentary not a documentary, and a feature-length film not worthy of being one? I can think of quite a few cases for each scenario, but few combine all three drawbacks with the prosaic dullness of Dreams of a Life.

The film’s hook intrigues. In 2006, British authorities broke into the North London apartment of Joyce Carol Vincent to evict her. Vincent, a vivacious and gorgeous young woman of West Indian descent, was discovered sitting on her sofa with the TV playing, and surrounded by a pile of Christmas presents. Or, more accurately, her putrefying bodily fluids were found puddled on the rug beneath her skeleton. Forensics revealed she had died in 2003. Writer/director Carol Morley sought to unravel how a popular and intelligent young woman in her twenties who seemingly had many friends and had held down responsible jobs could die alone in her flat without anyone noticing or making inquiries. Joyce had even made a few records, so somebody should have noticed, right? Quite a mystery, yes? No.

We learn in the first ten minutes that there is no mystery; Joyce was a serial groupie who latched onto people for short periods, vanished, and moved onto a new group (or lover). After 15 minutes we discover that Joyce was not quite what she claimed to be–not nearly so well educated, posh, or well connected as she let on. Had Morley stopped there, she might have had a tight little short film that could have created a minor stir in independent film festivals. Instead, she drags out the non-drama for another 80 minutes. Former partners, coworkers, club acquaintances, and musical collaborators go before the camera to tell us what I’ve already related. Rule one of a documentary is that it must record and document something. But Morley’s subjects have so little to say that she engages in two hard-to-overlook sins: she allows those behind the camera to repeat the same non-revealing items ad infinitum, and she supplements their lack of revelation with partially imagined re-creations using professional actors. (Zawe Ashton stands in for Joyce, Cornell John for her father, and so on.) Is this even a documentary once the corpse is collected? The threads of Joyce’s life are so few and the story so thin that Morley had to do something to get an hour and a half of usable footage, but the film feels like a two-page undergrad paper padded to five.

I don’t mean to sound callous, but Joyce Vincent left behind very little except an inflated view of her own musical talent and a penchant for conning people. Her egoism was probably a mask for deep insecurity, but the key word is “probably.” We don’t know and we don’t find out. Her life was short and tragic–sad, but hardly distinct from other short and tragic lives. This film wants us to grapple with the question of what we really know about another person. That’s a worthy query, but if the answer in any individual case is “not much,” there’s nothing left to say. So call it a wrap.--Rob Weir


Heather Maloney New Album Will Astonish

Don't be fooled by the demure cover. This one will bowl you over.

Heather Maloney
Signature Sounds 2053
* * * * *

Nearly every article on Heather Maloney mentions that when she hit the stage the first time in 2009 she nearly keeled over from stage fright. I remember those days. Color them gone, gone, gone. Let’s not waste any more time–Maloney’s third release, her first on Signature Sounds, is the year’s best acoustic release. Done. Can’t get any better. It is a work of maturity, deep emotion, and knock-you-to-your-knees beauty.

Maloney–originally from New Jersey and now in Western Massachusetts–was schooled in jazz and opera, studied classical Indian music, and spends time in meditation. Why the bio? Because all of these ground her in ways that elude many young singers. She writes with wisdom beyond her years and she interprets songs rather than feeling the need to prove her chops. Of course, it helps if those chops are already well done. We are served eleven songs that fall loosely in the folk country category, though jazz and pop undertones shine through. She can rock you with meaty, bouncy hooks (“Flutter”), impress you with a hand-jive/jazz mash up (“Hey Broken”), or stop you dead in your tracks with a poignancy and sweetness, as in “Dirt and Stardust,” a reflection on life’s ephemerality. (And she’s fine with that.) She has good politics too. “Grace,” a postmodern musing on the old gospel tune–with a clever refrain featuring elongated-to-clipped syllables–calls out “welfare queen” shouting hypocrites; and “John Ball” is where honky-tonk meets progressive thinking. She rounds off the album with “Flying on Helium,” a showstopper that’s simultaneously fragile and strong.

This album should draw comparisons to young Emmy Lou Harris and the debut release of Lucy Kaplansky. I say we dump the “emerging artist” label in favor of a new one: the Real Deal. --Rob Weir     


Amour the Best Film of 2012 (But Won't Be so Honored)

Not a Hollywood film so it won't win Best Picture, but count it among the greatest achievements in cinematic history.  

AMOUR (2012)
Directed by Michael Haneke
Les Films du Losange, PG-13, 127 minutes, in French with subtitles
* * * * *

Here’s what happens in the Oscar-nominated Amour: a woman in her 80s dies. That’s it–no guns, no fast cars, and no dazzling special effects. And, yet, it’s easily the best film of 2012–though it has no chance of winning that category–and it’s not too early to apply the term “classic” and rank it among the better films of all time.  (For the record, director Michael Haneke’s 2009 film The White Ribbon also belongs in that category.)

The film is essentially a pas de deux between Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingant) and Anne (Emmanuel Riva), elderly, married, haute bourgeois soul mates that have shared decades of music, teaching, books, art collecting, and mutual aloofness. When Anne blacks out after a glorious recital by her former pupil Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), the couple is faced with the reality that Anne is dying. It is here that amour (love) meets its ultimate test. What would you do for the one you love most when the Grim Reaper beckons? The film raises all manner of questions we spend our lives ignoring. When do we hold on, and when do we say goodbye? What will we endure for a few more moments? How do we judge when the line is crossed between tolerance and intolerance? How much care can even the most loving caregiver provide before the giver snaps? Is that person honor-bound to respect the wishes of the dying? How much is the receiver willing to accept? When does the loss of personal dignity become so repugnant that death becomes merciful? Georges quickly learns that there are no easy answers to those questions, and that the only guidelines are internal and instinctive. When daughter Eva (Isabelle Hupert) shows up to ask “serious” questions about what to do, Georges abruptly dismisses her.” What sort of serious discussion do you wish to have?” he demands. Eva has no answer; her own life is as complicated as most are midstream–financial woes, a rocky marriage, career worries, self-absorption….  Georges’ retort sharply slices through the nostrums and makes Eva confront truth.

If you get the idea that this film is depressing, you’re right. But it’s also many other things: touching and tragic, wise and helpless, shocking and poignant, funny and gut-wrenchingly sad. Does this sound contradictory? Isn’t the life cycle equally so? We are born without awareness and in a state of total dependency, and in such a state many of us leave this mortal coil. The biggest difference is that in between we develop selfhood and definite opinions about how that self should be treated.

Many North Americans will avoid this film like the plague. Not only is its subject a downer, its pacing is glacial. Georges and Anne are essentially prisoners on death row awaiting a sickle-bearing warden. They sit in the stillness of the den, inch along the silence of the foyer, and sit almost wordlessly at the table. There is one numbingly beautiful shot of Anne on her side in bed wearing a pale blue night gown; were it not for her occasional blinking, it could be a still-life titled Odalisque at 80. Another astonishing moment occurs during Georges’ slow-motion attempt to trap and release a pigeon that has gotten into the apartment–almost certainly a metaphor for the soul’s release. These are among numerous moments in which director Haneke forces his audiences to slow down and be aware of time’s passage. Kudos go also to veteran actors Trintignant and Riva. Few actors convey ennui as convincingly as Trintignat–his performance in Trois Coleurs: Rouge ranks among the finest in cinematic history­–but for once he is upstaged. Emmanuel Riva won’t win the Oscar either, but it would be fair to say that there is more emotion, passion, and anger in her eyebrows than her Oscar contenders could muster in a dozen overwrought soliloquies. She is a veritable shape shifter whom we witness transformed from a handsome older woman into a barely breathing sack of bones. Toward the end, her performance is mime elevated to heights not seen since the passing of Marcel Marceau.

Let me reiterate: this is not an American-style movie; it’s a European film. Amour demands patience, but its rewards are–dare I say it?–eternal. It should be required viewing for every erstwhile moralist that opposes doctor-assisted suicide. It also gives a twist and substance to the New Testament passage: “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”     --Rob Weir