Tales from The White Box

In my office, under a table, has been sitting a white cardboard banker's box for several years. It contains assorted comics, magazines, and graphic novels or collections that I want to get rid of but that I can't bear to throw out till I've read them first. Marie Kando would say, "If you haven't read them by now, you never will. You've already gotten enjoyment from them. If they're not bringing you joy now, then say good-bye to them."

But ... I just don't want to say good-bye to them yet. Since I don't have a reading project or writing project at this time, why not use this box and this blog to give myself both?

So, no order or theme to these reviews. Just taking them as they come out of the box, and as I finish reading them.

11 favorite Christmas albums

We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we're driving back from my Aunt Carolyn's Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home. The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we've had some of these CDs for so long that they're old friends. It's hard to hear them anew. Still -- Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days...)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children's chorus that sound like real children. Love that. "Christmas is Coming" always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.

Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late '90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I'd not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you're decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into "world music" for the holidays.

A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs -- "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -- into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.

Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies -- the cold night, the child in its crib -- plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as "Little Road to Bethlehem" and "Love Came Down at Christmas". It's a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin's gentle voice.

Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn't Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste -- many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen's vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus' arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: "Christmas in Carolina," "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," "Hanging Up My Stockings,"  and a kick-ass "Sleigh Ride."

American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth -- almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.

The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on "Il Est Ne/Ca Berger" and Nanci Griffith on "The Wexford Carol." But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and my favorite, Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus."

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) -- We have several of Rutter's Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter's arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all -- faithful, in all senses of that word.

In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG's, 2011) -- If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late '80s-early '90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.

A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo's Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.

A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I'm making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what's needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late '90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like "Frosty" or "Rudolph" here, thank Festivus.



Playmakers Rep's "Three Sisters"

In their ads read during the local morning NPR news, Playmakers Rep touted its “new take” on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What on earth does that meaningless phrase mean? This is my third production of Three Sisters and it didn’t look anything like some of the wilder Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Chekhov plays are so rooted to their time and place that they resist overmuch tampering.

Is it a "new take" because it was a new idiomatic translation? Or color-blind casting (two of the principal actors are African-American)?

The new translation by Libby Appel seemed fine, though with too many Americanized phrases for my ear. Appel translates “I don’t understand you” as “I don’t get it.” Yes, it’s shorter, more colloquial–but it jars my ear. Some phrases also struck me as clichés that would have been stripped from any other play. (Had I gone with the intention of writing a review, I’d have taken notes!)

Vivienne Benesch’s direction orchestrated some fine moments, though I think the size and spread of PRC’s thrust stage, with audiences on three sides, worked against the production and the play.

Chekhov charts the sisters’ descent from their height in Act 1, where they are clearly the center of attention and in charge of the household, until they are slowly squeezed into a small bedroom under the eaves, and then finally ejected by the domineering sister-in-law whose vulgarity they had earlier sneered at.

The creeping claustrophobia of the home is echoed by the smothering provinciality of their small town. The sisters early on deride the town’s small-minded pettiness and lack of culture. “To Moscow, to Moscow” is their prayer, their plaint, their lament.

Yet the stage, though cleverly redressed for the major scene changes, never emphasized their increasingly crowded and shrinking horizons. Olga and Irina’s bedroom should be a tiny thing, and though small enough on the PRC stage, there seems to be a whole other space alongside it where they and their uninvited guests can wander freely, talk, lie down, and scream. The sheer size of the stage undercut the play’s intimacy.

The performances were good, but not uniformly so. Daniel Pearce’s Kulygin always commanded my attention when he walked onstage, and Carey Cox’s Natalya was quite strong.

For me, the standout performances were Allison Altman’s Irina–particularly her sad and shocking breakdown as she realizes she will not escape to Moscow–and Arielle Yoder’s Masha, whose cool demeanor hides a seething anger and yearning. Marinda Anderson’s Olga was firm and supportive–the tone-setter in the opening minutes and the solid emotional anchor in the final minutes–but isn’t given the opportunity to tear into her own longings and desires. One moment of Anderson’s I loved: her shock and uneasiness at Natasha’s barking mad frustration with the old nurse.

In the last scene, as the sisters stand in the back yard of their former home, Olga hears the marching music of the soldiers leaving the town. She hopes that the sisters will soon learn “why we are alive and why we suffer.” As she said this, I think all three sisters turned outward to look at the audience, as if to say–We’re suffering so you can learn and remember. I’m not sure if I’m remembering or interpreting that moment correctly; it simply struck me as odd for the sisters to turn their backs to each other at a moment when they should be reaching toward each other and thereby finding their purpose.

Three Sisters was a fine but not a great production, with moments of exquisitely etched agony and loss, but it did not strike me as a new take.

What we've been watching (and reading)

In response to Michael's post of recommended films, here's my list of the various media we've been ingesting (movies, TV, books, performances) the last several months. Not all are enthusiastically recommended. But maybe you will get a sense of what I like and don't like, and can then judge whether to trust my appraisals. This is one value that critics and reviewers provide, if nothing else Movies were seen via Netflix, Amazon Prime, or at the mighty Carolina Theatre.


God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : a saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island by Cornelia Bailey with Christena Bledsoe (2000). I read to Liz before she goes to sleep and we've found over the years that memoirs tend to be our favored material. This book is an oral history told by Bailey about her life on the Georgia barrier island of Sapelo, populated by the descendants of slaves who had worked cotton on the island. The memoir covers her life from when she was born in the '50s to the present-day, with lots of cultural history and stories going back to pre-Civil War times. Even in the '50s, the inhabitants lived in a supernatural world alongside the natural one; she talks about "haints," interpreting dreams, and the ghosts of dead ancestors always close by as daily companions. Bailey's easy way with a story and lively memories make this a delightful reading experience. We've not gotten there yet, but we will soon hear about the decline of the old ways as the young move off of the island and the few residents who remain fight off pressure from the State of Georgia, which owns nine-tenths of the island. The book's title derives from the Geechees' (cousin to the Gullahs) belief in the equal power of God, "Dr. Buzzard" (voodoo), and the "Bolito Man" (luck).


Tig (dirs: Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York, 2015). A documentary of standup comedian Tig Nitaro, who lived through one of the most hellish years one could imagine and her struggles with transforming some of those experiences into jokes and material, along with rebuilding her life and career. I don't want to say more, as I came to this knowing nothing of her struggles; as her story would turn a corner and go somewhere new and unexpected, I was swept along and as shocked or delighted as she was. Her bravery in so many aspects of her life -- not just shakily rebuilding her career but taking bigger and bigger personal chances too -- had me shaking my head in admiration.


Silicon Valley, season 1 (2014). So great to have a Mike Judge TV series again and this one is so smart and so spot-on in its satire of the Silicon Valley culture. The culture is already so over the top, it's hard to see how it can be lampooned, but Judge and his writers do it. The skeletal and spectral Jared is my favorite character. Be warned that it can be pretty raunchy, particularly the last episode.


The Overnight (dir: Patrick Brice, 2015). When did quirk become the new normal? A thin piece that, after the mysteries are explained, starts rousing to some kind of strange life -- and then it's over. Afterward, I started writing an essay in my head on how the story sets up the characters and its themes, deconstructing why do the leading ladies and leading men look alike?, and finding evidence that at film's end  things are still not as they seem ... when I wondered why I was polishing my bucket to hold a drop of water. One of the quips I've seen all over the web lately goes, "Some things once seen cannot be unseen." This is especially true of Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman's skinny-dipping scene.


Hello Ladies, the series (2013) and the movie (2014). How much of this series you can tolerate depends on how much you like the cringeworthy comedies that Stephen Merchant has created with Ricky Gervais. His hapless ladies' man and lame cool guy routine gets routine pretty quickly, while his character's willful ignorance, inability to learn his lessons, and punishing trials never seem to go further than trying to raise a larf. When I could get past the plots, though, I enjoyed watching his character Stuart hanging out with his friends and particularly his attractive tenant Jessica, and following their stories with more interest. The characters' craving for something they can't have blinds them all, one way or another. Merchant and his co-writers also have an uncanny ability to suggest tenderness and vulnerability peeking out from under the farce's bedsheets. The series' last two episodes were the high point, focusing on the characters with the comedy taking a back seat. The movie wraps up the series' loose threads with a hackneyed plot in the first half that shifts gears in the second to a serious study of this damaged character and his redemption. I was actually cheering for him at the end. And the movie sports one of the funniest sex scenes ever, so there's that.


Alice Gerard & Rayna Gellert, Laurelyn Dossett. We went to Duke's Music in the Gardens series to see these great folk performers. Because live performance by real musicians is what it's all about. Support your local artists.


Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015). A self-absorbed white high-school boy shakes off his cloud of mope after alienating his black friend and breaking the heart of the dying girl. Oooooo-kay. What makes the movie work is its kinetic storytelling (reminded me of Thank You For Smoking, for some reason) and the movie parodies. And maybe it's me, but I was really offended by the popular girl offering herself as Greg's prom date. Why did these characters give Greg the time of day?


The Audience (dir: Stephen Daldry, 2013) Seen via the National Theatre's live stream into selected movie theaters. An entertaining collection of vignettes showing Queen Elizabeth II's relationships with her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. Funny, middlebrow, fast-moving, a few piquant observations on the queen's role in her country, Mirren is as masterly as they say, and I didn't believe any of it for a second. I prefer The Queen (2006).


I'll See You In My Dreams (dir: Brett Haley, 2015). So good to see Blythe Danner onscreen again, even in a posh Hallmark Channel type of movie; the supporting actors are great, the lines are funny, and Sam Elliott is sly and dry as the man who wakes Danner's character out of her late-in-life lethargy. Warm, affecting, encouraging. Despite a few lapses (are post-pot-smoking hunger binges really that funny?), everyone acts like grown-ups and it's nice to spend time with characters who don't make me cringe. As with most every movie we've seen this year, the performers are all appealing and make the material they play shine brighter.


True Stories (dir: David Byrne, 1986). An art-student type vanity project by Byrne that doesn't have a proper story, but that's also not the point. IMDB says there are 50 sets of twins in the movie. Why? Who knows? They're just there, the way the Talking Heads songs are there, the way the preacher is ranting on SubGenius themes, the way David Byrne stiffly narrates a day in the life of a small Texas town and its amusing small-town characters but never, I think, makes mean or mocking fun of them. He seems to simply enjoy them as they are. I enjoyed the movie's oddball stance and easygoing pace. John Goodman, in one of his earliest roles, is there with his screen persona fully-formed and grounds the movie with his heart and vulnerability. And, God, but "Wild, Wild Life" is a fun number.


A Serious Man (dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen, 2006). Larry Gopnik is a nice man, but not a serious man, in the sense that his Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburbs would recognize. And when the trials of Job start assaulting him, he has no idea what to do or where to go for help. No blood, no gangsters, over the top in all the right ways, funny, fantastic period detail (the mid- to late-Sixties), anchored to a fine lead performance by Michael Stuhlbarg. The Coens never explain everything in their movies so there is usually something unresolved at its center. I like having some undefined spaces in a story.


Love & Mercy (dir: Bill Pohlad, 2014). Because we had seen The Wrecking Crew documentary a few weeks before, I got a kick seeing them portrayed onscreen in several scenes where Brian Wilson is crafting songs for the next Beach Boys album; for me, these scenes were the most fun of the entire movie. Paul Dano is incredible as the young, strung-out Brian Wilson who finds himself as isolated from the people around him as his 40-year-old strung-out self is under the care of a really creepy therapist. I never really bought John Cusack as the older Wilson. All of the "that can't be true" moments I experienced seem to have mostly happened as depicted onscreen. Wow.


Welcome to Me (dir: Shira Piven, 2015) Kirsten Wiig is terribly appealing as an unbalanced young woman who wins the lottery, stops taking her meds, and uses her winnings to stage her own Oprah-style show, dispensing bad advice and settling scores with everyone who she felt ever wronged her, from the second grade on up. The movie has the guts to take that premise to its logical conclusion and Wiig goes with it, as her at-first quirkily adorable character sinks into darker places. Hell is inside us and we take it with us wherever we go. This was a movie where, as I watched, I mentally charted the by-the-book plot points, reversals, higher stakes, final push, etc. An OK movie -- not bad but not great.


Philomena (dir: Stephen Frears, 2013). We were on a Steve Coogan kick after enjoying The Trip and especially after falling in love with his TV series Saxondale (2006-07). We'd missed this one on theatrical release. Philomena no doubt follows the same screenplay template as many of the other movies on this list, but I found the performers so appealing, the story so sad, and the anger so fresh, I didn't notice. The movie tweaked the real-life story, of course, but the bones are there. Coogan and Dench make a good team. Worth your time.


Still Alice (dir: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, 2014). I remember seeing a TV movie decades ago with Richard Kiley and Joanne Woodward, where Woodward's character, a poet, is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and begins slowly falling apart while her husband bewilderedly tries to understand and cope with the loss of his wife. I've also just described the broad outline of Still Alice, which sports a fantastic performance by Julianne Moore, and which features a sequence from the novel that had me on the edge of my seat. Aside from those assets, though, I can't say this movie said anything more to me than that decades-old one did. It's gorgeously filmed, and themes of connection/disconnection are always poignant. I choked up at the end when Alec Baldwin, as the husband, talks to their daughter; it's probably the only time I've seen Baldwin that vulnerable and it got my attention and past my defenses.


Vertigo (dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). I backed a Kickstarter campaign for new seats at the Carolina Theatre, and one of the rewards was a backers-only showing of this movie with our backsides in the new comfy chairs. (Nice and cushy but they don't breathe after about 90 minutes.) It had been decades since I'd seen Vertigo, and watching it on the big screen was glorious -- it enhanced the richness of the colors, the swell of the music. The movie has a tone and pace unlike any other Hollywood product of the time, even other Hitchcock movies of the time. I kept trying to squeeze it into a noir box and it resolutely wouldn't go; it was too brightly lit and beautiful looking (those shots of San Francisco!) to be noir. But its storytelling is less about murder than it is mystery, mood, and tone poem. So many motifs (time, memory, reflections, the abuse of women by men) criss-cross the movie like webbing that its creepiness -- especially Scottie's obsessive remaking of Judy -- is hard to shake. Yes, it's dated, but it has a lingering power and gnawing aftereffect that few movies have.

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.”

What makes these documentaries necessary are the detective work the filmmakers perform as they answer the questions we as viewers have about their subjects’ lives. More to the point, the films attempt to find and interview the people who knew these women and whose recollections, of necessity, can construct only incomplete pictures.

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.