Documentaries: "Dreams of a Life", "Finding Vivian Maier"

We had an unintended, somewhat depressing, Netflix theme going recently: documentaries of forgotten women who led enigmatic lives. Given the attention they have received in recent years, it’s as if their lives only became interesting after their deaths. You can certainly read all about the stories of Joyce Vincent and Vivian Maier on Wikipedia, but from such sources you only get, as Emily Dickinson would say,“the facts but not the phosphorescence.”

Finding Vivian Maier

For Finding Vivian Maierpictures is the operative word.

The filmmaker, John Maloof, bought a trunk of her belongings at an auction house, discovered sheets of her negatives, and was intrigued by their content and artistry.  He sought out everything else she had squirreled away and stuffed into a crammed storage unit.FindingVivianMaier_500x500

It was clear from what she left behind that Vivian was a hoarder: newspapers, clothes, hats, shoes, trinkets, election badges, receipts, bills, uncashed tax refund checks, bus and rail tickets – ephemera of all sorts. But along with all of that were thousands and thousands of B&W negatives, hundreds of rolls of unexposed B&W film, color slides, and Super–8 movies from the early 1970s.

Maloof was captivated by her guerrilla street photography, her formal experiments with self-portraits, and the sometimes playful pictures she took of the children and families for whom she worked as a nanny. As a photographer, she got close to her subjects in ways that were extraordinary. Based on the evidence of her negatives, she took her craft seriously and knew that she had an eye.

(Maloof’s web site contains galleries of her photos and I strongly urge you to spend some time with them, if you’ve never seen them before. They’re both time capsules and timeless.)

To Maloof, and to others who saw these pictures, she was clearly an artist. Why, then, had no one ever heard of her? Why did she make so few prints of these remarkable images and do nothing with them? Her life – which this intensely private woman held close to her – and her choices were a mystery he felt moved to solve.

Maloof’s documentary (co-directed with Charlie Siskel) starts out being about him, his background, and his discovery of and increasing obsession with Maier. As the movie goes on, though, the detective work on Maier’s life takes center stage and Maloof wisely steps into the background where possible.

The most fascinating interviews, for me, were with the adults whom she had looked after as children and their memories of seeing Maier’s behavior when she was unobserved by her employers. While it was clear to all who met her that she was an eccentric, the children sometimes – in some cases, often – saw that eccentricity veer scarily to either aloof or threatening behavior.

The persistent question from Maloof, the professional photographers and artists he interviews, and Vivian’s acquaintances (she never really had “friends”) is: why did she keep her amazing photos a secret? Why did she do nothing with them? The impression given is that Vivian could have had a career as a significant artist had she only gone public with her photographs.

The film cannot answer that question, of course, though it seems to Maloof the primary mystery of Vivian's legacy. But it didn't strike me as a mystery at all. To me, the obvious answer to why she never cashed in on her remarkable photographs is, “Because that’s not why she took them.” She evidently got out of her picture-taking exactly what she wanted. Putting aside the fact that she appeared not to know any artists nor sought out any sort of artistic community nor even bothered to properly care for her film and negatives, it seemed clear to me that Vivian had no ambitions or inclinations to be a professional photographer.

She did not treat her photography the way most of us treat a hobby, as a refuge or comfort or renewal from our daily grind. Picture-making did not seem to give her any emotional comfort or reward. At times it appeared to be a compulsion, certainly, but not something that gave her pleasure.

Why take all those pictures then? Because the camera offered Vivian a way to hoard ephemeral things: moments, images, impressions, anything that caught her attention. As long as she knew she had the negatives or undeveloped film, then she knew she could get back to them “someday.” One of the interviewees said Maier had so many newspapers stacked in her attic room, her father had to install a steel beam to bolster the sagging floor. She treated her negatives the same way as she treated her receipts, hats, clothes, and newspapers: it was all the same to her.

Vivian clearly suffered some trauma in her life that led to her eccentric behaviors. Taking pictures may have been a way to use the camera, which was always around her neck, as a buffer between her and the world while still enabling her to participate as an observer and collector, as someone who could control the experience.

A new acquaintance asked her one time what she did. She answered, “I’m a spy.” The filmmakers imply she led a double life, working as a nanny while taking pictures of both the world and herself – a secret she held to herself as tightly as she did many others.

Dreams of a Life

Of the two films, Dreams of a Life is definitely the sadder and more disturbing movie, and the one that gnaws at me when I stop to think about it. Finding Vivian Maier, while not a light piece, has the grace of Vivian’s art uplifting it and Maloof’s dogged detective work to uncover her life’s mysteries though not all her secrets. And there is the successful recovery of a trove of photographs that would otherwise have been lost forever.

Dreams of a Life is more spare and troubling. Not least because Joyce Vincent left so little evidence of her life and activities. Former friends and co-workers who knew her can describe what she looked like, how she behaved, the stories she told, but these are only the outer edges of her life as observed by others with the center left tantalizingly, frustratingly blank. There is little to celebrate.Dreams_of_a_life

The film starts with the death of Joyce Vincent – or rather, the discovery of her body. To the best anyone can reconstruct, the 38-year-old died in her bedsit in a rather shabby part of London in December 2003. But her body wasn’t discovered until January 2006. What was found were her skeletal remains; as one interviewee chillingly put it, her body basically “melted into the carpet.” With no soft tissues available for forensic examination, no one can know how she died. She was only positively identified via dental records.

The story angle picked up by the media was what one would expect: how could this have happened? Where was her family? Her friends? Why did no one try to find her or call her or look her in over 2 years? Where was the landlord? The neighbors? And where were the public services? When her body was found, the television and heating were still on. And another grim, poignant detail: her body was surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents with no name tags. Her death -- and the absence of concern about her absence from the world -- became a metaphor about the lack of personal relationships in a crowded, always-connected modern society.

It’s a haunting story that caught the attention of the filmmaker Carol Morley. She took out ads soliciting information from anyone who knew Joyce, slowly locating and tracking down friends, acquaintances, co-workers, former partners, an old roommate. The family declined to participate in the movie.

As Vivian became Maloof’s muse, so Joyce became Morley’s. The timeline she created to track Joyce’s movements through her life, and particularly her difficult last years, is glimpsed throughout the film. The jumble of whiteboard notes, photographs, and news clippings introduce episodes in Joyce’s life, interview subjects, and even suggest events that Morley did not or could not include. Without information from Joyce's older sisters to fill in needed gaps, and without eyewitnesses to key points in Joyce's life, the movie's narrative is maddeningly patchy with too many questions left unanswered.

But Morley deftly turns that lack of information into an opportunity. What had been blank space instead becomes an empty canvas where every interview subject can paint their own picture of Joyce.

They describe Joyce as beautiful, funny, charming, someone who held increasingly responsible jobs – she was the person who looked absolutely put together and undoubtedly led a remarkable life. She was the center of attention -- especially men's -- when she walked into a room. She seemed an innocent and trusting soul. How could anyone so attractive and charming not lead a fascinating life?

But other details of her personality emerge from the interviews. She didn’t talk about her family. She said her father was dead when he wasn’t. The most significant detail to me was how she took on a new boyfriend’s circle of friends as her circle yet never spoke or talked about any other friends she might have had before. When a relationship ended, she drifted away from the circle and was rarely seen by them afterward. It was as if, with every new job and every new relationship, she shed her old skin -- old apartment, old friends --  and re-entered the world as a new person. A blank slate for everyone, including herself.

The most compelling interviewees, to me, were a former boyfriend Martin and her no-nonsense former flatmate Catherine. Martin seems the quintessential, conventional nice guy who tried helping Joyce and wonders if he could have done more. Catherine, on the other hand, is quick with her judgments and clear on what she knows. Her story of the last time she saw Joyce had me gobsmacked – not just Joyce’s behavior, but Catherine’s cool, unsentimental reaction to it. Catherine and Martin would have been great friends to have in your corner and may have counter-balanced Joyce’s maddening lack of focus. But Joyce deliberately pulled away from them as she pulled away from everyone and seems mainly to have drifted through her life.

Morley enjoys throwing her interview subjects a curveball on-camera to get their reactions. In one, she plays a tape of a song Joyce had recorded, ending with a giggly sign-off. They’re startled to hear her voice. They laugh and then say the cute sign-off sounds just like Joyce. Except for Catherine, who says it sounded not at all like Joyce. These contrasts become an interrogation of not only who Joyce really was – something no one will ever know – but how she is remembered and how incomplete those memories are.

If every one has their own image of Joyce, then Morley does too. Her dreams of Joyce's life are presented in re-created scenes from Joyce’s childhood and adult life based on stories Joyce told her friends. The actress Zawe Ashton plays Joyce in scenes – a disastrous birthday party, dancing at a club – that are recollected by the interviewees. The movie re-creates the discovery of Joyce’s body and the subsequent cleanup and forensic investigation of the apartment but with no attempt to visualize her corpse (I am thankful that Morley does not reproduce any photographs taken at the scene). The movie cuts between scenes of a vibrantly alive Joyce and the grim clean-up of her desolate apartment.

I don’t like recreations, as a rule; I can see the need to visually liven up a stretch of the film that would otherwise only have talking heads. But if you can’t document what actually happened, then it’s not a re-creation, it’s a fabrication. One moment particularly angered me. In it, Ashton portrays Joyce singing along to a record with a hairbrush as her microphone, echoing an earlier scene when the 5-year-old Joyce “performs” for her sisters and mother. As the record finishes, the adult Joyce stops the singalong and breaks down in tears. I understand that this is Morley's vision of the Joyce she feels she has come to know, but to me, it was needlessly sentimental glop and a violation of Joyce and her memory. Her story is sad enough without this scene gratuitously amping it up.

Both movies haunted me

Vivian and Joyce kept the world at arm’s length for reasons no one will know. They were solitary women seeking a family, I think, and never quite finding it or quite fitting in. These movies record how the people who knew them saw them, interpreted them. And the movies themselves are not objective; they frame their subjects just as interpretively.

Vivian’s life is a mystery full of clues, and her legacy is the body of work she knowingly created, albeit without any plan. Was she an artist, as so many of the commentators in the movie think? Is that why she took all of those pictures? Or was taking pictures something she was compelled to do, the same way she hoarded newspapers and receipts? Fortunately, these questions don’t have to be answered to enjoy her remarkable photographs. Vivian found a place in the world, at last. And her story, the mysteries of her life, add a captivating allure to the images the world was very close to losing.

But it’s Joyce’s story that moves me on a deeper, sadder level and that I think will stick with me longer. Partly for the simple pathos of dying alone and forgotten. Partly because this was a tragedy that could have been prevented. I want to believe that she could have reached out more and that others could have tried a little harder to reach her (though the film makes clear that in her last months, she was deliberately in hiding and was avoiding contact with everyone from her old life). In the end, it was easier to lose touch than to maintain it.

And her story moves me to ask questions of my own life, as Morley intended it to. Because we've all known people for intense periods of time, however fleetingly: work, school, the other parents in the playgroup, hobbies, church. When I look back over my life, I have carried very few people with me into the present-day from previous jobs, from all the arts classes and community theater productions I did. I spent four very intense years getting my master's, worked on many class projects with my fellow students and teachers, and got to know a few very well. Yet today, I am in only occasional touch with two or three. How well did we all really get to know each other? That's the haunting question Joyce Vincent's life raises: will anyone come looking for me?

By the way, I referred to both women here using their first names rather than their last names because I think it gentler than treating their shades as simply fodder for a stupid blog post. Kindness should be extended to these women even after the fact of their deaths.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you).

If you want to learn to use implementation intentions, I recommend you set this goal intention and meta-implementation intention right now:

Goal intention: I intend to use implementation intentions to reach my goals!

Implementation intention: If I set a goal intention, I will also think of a specific implementation intention that specifies the where, when, and how I will act to achieve my goal!

Goodbyes: Irish and Serbian

This is something I used to do more in my 20s but never knew there was a name for: the "Irish goodbye," said of someone who leaves a party without saying their farewells to the host, the other guests, etc. Also referred to, says the Slate article, as "ghosting." A young woman in our office, who married a Serbian gent and visits the country regularly, contrasts this with what she calls the "Serbian goodbye." In this instance, you have to say goodbye to everyone at the party before you can leave. She says it can take an hour and half to leave a party.

Movie: "Wild"

I've not read Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, on which the movie is based. And I've seen only a few Reese Witherspoon movies (I liked "Election" the best). So most everything here was new to me. "Wild" tells two stories simultaneously: Cheryl's punishing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at the Mexican border and finishing hundreds of miles later at the Oregon-Washington border, and the circumstances that drove her there.

Poster for the movie "Wild"

I liked "Wild," though I am perhaps a little weird in that I like movies without much plot. Some of my favorite movies are "Russian Ark," "Before Sunset," "My Dinner with Andre" -- movies that are somewhat talky, have a dreamy temperament, and where the journey is the destination.

But if I had to summarize -- "Wild" is a movie about getting lost and finding one's way out. The estimable Nick Hornby fashioned the packed screenplay from Strayed's incident-filled story, while director Jean-Marc Vallée stages and paces the trek and the flashbacks.

From the start, Cheryl is clearly inexperienced, overpacked, and overburdened, not only by her burgeoning backpack and supplies, but by her memories: her years of  heroin abuse, her years of cheating on her husband and the inevitable wreckage of their marriage, and, most of all, the overwhelming grief and void left by her mother's death that is as big and seemingly incomprehensible as the landscape she crosses.

I liked the movie's stew of trail adventures, memories, snatches of dialogue and song, and disconnected images that finally resolve into a finished portrait. I liked not having the whole story and then piecing it together myself, a necessity since the hike itself is more episodic than dramatic.

That said, the movie does rather fall in love with its storytelling style and Vallée overeggs the pudding with one appearance too many of a wild (magical?) fox that shadows Cheryl on the trail. I did sometimes want to shake the movie and tell it to please sit still and settle down so we can get on with it.

As for Cheryl's backstory, I agree with the Saturday Review  panelists who found those bits the least compelling.  As truthful and real as those incidents were -- and apparently, pretty much everything the movie presents to us about her descent into self-destruction happened -- they are for whatever reason simply less interesting than seeing Cheryl meet the trail-based problems head-on: what does she do when her water runs out on the edge of a scrub desert? How will she get herself and her hyuuge backpack (that is as tall as her and probably half her body weight) up and through this narrow mountain crevice? How is she going to walk through the woods after one shoe slides off a mountain and she throws the other one after it in frustration? (And that's after she loses her toenails from wearing too-tight shoes -- yikes!).

Seeing her persevere and overcome these problems was fascinating to watch. But I also hear the voice of my playwright friend Karyn, who would say that without the family story, without that pain in her past, you can't have the story we see in the present.

I agree, but ... I think Strayed hit on the essential difference in one of her interviews. The story of her spiral into self-destruction is a story of her running away and refusing to face her troubles. On the trail, however, that choice doesn't exist -- she either gets her ass over the snow-covered mountains or she doesn't. She either goes forward or she goes back -- and despite the temptations to drop out and leave the trail early, she never does. The will and stamina that enabled her body to survive years of self-inflicted abuse is the same toughness that helps her push on, survive, and heal.  So that when she finally emerges from her dark wood at the end, the moment is both everything she's wanted and the quietest triumph in the world.

One of the movie's thrumming themes is of vulnerability and violence -- both physical and emotional. The most obvious vulnerability is the physical threat of violence, as a woman hiking alone. While Cheryl meets friendly male hikers along the trail who provide needed companionship and advice, she also must predict and deflect the attentions of predatory men, who echo the violence her mother suffered at the hands of her father.

She bears marks of violence, to be sure -- the scars and abrasions she collects on her body by the heavy backpack rubbing against her skin, falling, climbing, scraping against trees and brush. But the trail isn't doing her violence. The trail is just there, the way it's always been there, and always will be there. This is just part of the hike. She's earning these scars, just as she and her husband marked themselves with his-and-her tattoos as "parting gifts" to each other on their divorce.

More tender are the movie's moments of emotional vulnerability. There is a key scene where Cheryl's beloved mother tries to teach her -- through words and deeds -- how to stay open to life and to love. It's a lesson the young Cheryl is not ready to accept.

And that moment comes home in a poignant scene when Cheryl talks with a woman and her grandson in a pouring rain along the trail. The boy hints that he has suffered a tragedy and sings for Cheryl a song his music-teacher mother taught him: that melancholy old ballad "Red River Valley." My God, but even now, as I think on how that song hangs over that scene, as time slows down and I see Cheryl's heart break as this unafraid little boy sings verse after verse of this haunting song ... well, my heart rises in my throat and I am as overcome as Cheryl. It's the quietest, most touching, most devastating moment for me in the entire movie.

If you're interested in behind the scenes stuff, see this History vs Hollywood page that provides loads of details on where the movie and reality agree and diverge.

For now, I’ve limited my storage to a 16GB SD card. The small amount of space forces me to dump photos onto the hard drive once a week or so. I never learned this simple rule till now, but “keep the best and trash the rest” is an organization life saver. After harvesting the good stuff, I compile the truly precious photos into a desktop folder, which I’ll eventually have printed into a book.

A woman in Sri Lanka once told me a story. She said that the rate of malaria among the British in Sri Lanka during the 19th century was much higher than in the local population. It was the vases of flowers, she told me. In the British households, they found it absolutely necessary to keep beautiful bunches of cut flowers in vases. These vases of standing water happened also to be perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. The British were killing themselves with a stubborn sense of aesthetics.

I think the only reason I’ve had the career life that I’ve had is that someone told me some secrets early on about living. You can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is or what your job is, the more relaxed you are the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did it. And I thought, that’s a job I could be proud of. It’s changed my life learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do.

In Impro, Keith Johnstone writes that when improvisers try to be original, they fail. “Don’t be original; be obvious.” When you state the obvious, you actually seem original. Paradoxical, eh? Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear. The trick is, what’s completely obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else. Many people can tell exactly the same story about exactly the same event, but if each speaks from their authentic point of view, each story will seem “original.”

“Maybe the human condition is best summarized as the constant and spectacular battle to veto one’s own programming.” - Winston Rowntree

The whole process of getting old—it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters—they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.