For nearly ten years, Stig Björkman endeavored to get Joyce Carol Oates on board for a documentary. At first, Oates denied his request, opting to keep her life and mind private. But eventually, the beloved American author accepted Björkman’s proposal, which, admittedly, seemed to verge on incessant prying. Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind emerges as an affectionate, delicately composed portrait of one of America’s most fascinating, impactful writers. Björkman tells her story, but really, he shows how a single voice influenced culture for decades.
“The use of language is all we have left to pit against death and silence,” says Oates, a sentiment resonant with Björkman’s documentary. He angles his film to prove the long-lasting significance of Oates’s contribution not only to written words but also to the world at large. Her writing defies silence, speaking through voices repeatedly squandered by history. Frequently inspired by real-life events, both personal and public, she challenges memory, status quo, and most often, the powers that be, digging into untold stories found in the 1960s Detroit Riots, the Chappaquiddick incident, and the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe, among others.
A Body in the Service of Mind is meticulously woven together. Björkman splices together recent interviews with archival clips and excerpts of Oates’s books read by Laura Dern. It’s a tricky undertaking for a 90-minute documentary; the narrative occasionally feels jumbled or diluted. Despite this, Björkman sustains a measured pace, striking a compelling balance between Oates’s life and her timeless stories. In many ways, Björkman helps illuminate the lasting impact of her impressive repertoire with this unprecedented juxtaposition.
Above all, A Body in the Service of Mind is a gift. The documentary is troubled by skimming over several vital moments, likely due to time constraints more than anything. Regardless, Björkman accomplishes a significant feat by offering us an intimate look into Oates’s writing practice, her home, and her mind, leaving us wonderstruck. 94 min.