“It is all gone / and yet not dead”
— James Dickey, “Falling” (1967)
How material are we in our increasingly immaterial world? If you’re a reclusive presence in this cyberspace-age, it can be easier to be forgotten. So it went with Pia Farrenkopf, estranged from her family and seeing little of her neighbours by 2009; her virtual shadow—automated payments from a large bank account—finally retreated in 2013 to reveal her death, four years earlier. When her money ran out and mortgage payments stopped, a bank employee visited her house in Pontiac, Michigan, discovering her mummified corpse in her car in her garage.
Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life (2011) considers Joyce Carol Vincent (1965 – 2003). A seemingly “upwardly mobile” Londoner, the 38-year-old, estranged from her father and sisters, was found in her bedsit two years after dying there (of unknown causes). As unrecognizable as she was—only identifiable by dental records—the gap between story and person makes her seem more unknown; truth and reality shimmer and snake away in this documentary. Even old friends didn’t twig to her name in the papers because they couldn’t equate their Joyce with that corpse, undetected for years in a North London flat.
How awfully, strangely death can void a personal identity (that “me,” how we see ourselves—gone), with only others having pieced and patched it together, rightly and wrongly over the years (there’s plenty of assumptions, unsure recollecting and speculation here). The filling-in of the chalk outline remains sketchy, as Morley—craftily offering re-creations and fragments of “evidence” (maps, period-music, flashes of the director’s notes and reconstructed timeline)—well knows. This docu-obituary’s sharply aware of its own bit-ness, its partial-ness.
Morley’s works tend to concern identity, absence—The Alcohol Years (2000) reconstructed her “lost period” as a drinking, wanton teen during the ’80s Madchester scene—and absent parents: Morley’s father committed suicide when she was 11; Vincent’s mother died when she was 11; Lydia, in The Falling (2014), has no dad and an emotionally frigid mom (played by Morley-regular Maxine Peake). Morley’s latest, The Falling slipped, unnoticed, onto disc here some months ago. It stars Maisie Williams as Lydia and Florence Pugh as the more experienced Abbie, fond classmates at a girls’ school in 1969 when mass fainting erupts. (Morley researched cases of mass hysteria for a decade, from dancing manias in Renaissance Europe to a New York high school, 2011 – 2012, where girls twitched and fell. The vast majority of recorded cases involve women, usually school-aged girls; repression and social tensions seem obvious undercurrents but Morley thinks belonging and empathy—to act out like others, you have to tune in—lie at the heart of such pack-behaviour.)
The title action is a brilliant metaphor for adolescence—as if the falling is the keening ache of trance-like adolescence itself, full of angst and anguish and the need to provoke adults, not to mention the panicked need to feel you’re genuine, not phony. We’re tumbled into an autumnal sense of ardent longing and attachment, the girls pregnant with romance, enraptured by Wordsworth’s verse, and intrigued to know what “it” feels like, even as authority-figures frost classes over with strictness and severity … all this in the looser, freer ’60s (a decade of crazes, of Beatlemania).
Morley’s poetic, docu-dramatic style—motifs of trees and hair; feverish flash-flurries of images—is undercut by the too-persistent score (not nearly as stirring as Dreams of a Life’s song-interlude). The story’s end is too modern and theatrical, but the sense of something in the air holds. The girls, perhaps as tribute to a dead classmate, turn near-passivity into action: falling is rising up; swooning and dramatic fits are rebellious, mysterious, deliriously overwrought expressions of femininity. Presence and absence braid together. V