It’s a modern-day tragedy that some people may know writer Joyce Carol Oates from because of her online presence — on social media, she posted a photo of her foot with blisters, and inflammatory opinions are regularly voiced. It’s strange — and strangely fascinating — behavior for such a literary heavyweight, one whose six decades of novels, short stories, essays and more have triggered fascinating debates about the intersection of violence, sexuality, race and feminism (among other dark, uniquely American topics).
There is much to talk about the writer, now 85. The documentary “Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind” is a shame just nibbles. Directed by Stig Björkman and narrated by Laura Dern, this documentary focuses on establishing Oates within the canon of American literary giants as it revolves around the uniqueness and provocation of his ideas.
Björkman offers something like a glorified Wikipedia article. He identifies key moments in Oates’ life (his marriages, his upbringing in rural New York) and relates them too neatly to the books that came out of them. For example, “They,” Oates’ 1969 masterpiece, has been explained as simply a reaction to the 1967 riots in Detroit. What’s more, Björkman isn’t interested in showing off the beauty of Oates’ prose or her often raunchy interests — Oates’ Marilyn Monroe novel, “Blonde,” becomes a neutered feminist statement piece rather than a sordid one. legend making story.
An extended interview with Oates is woven throughout, though the tight-lipped writer doesn’t care about confessions. If Björkman’s breakdown is textbook exasperation, he at least allows us to warm to the writer’s strange presence. We look at Oates, his lips and slightly glazed eyes, and can’t help but ask: What is he thinking?
Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of the Mind
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.