Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold ★★★★ review

by Nadia Bee

The feted, legendary writer Joan Didion is such a prominent figure in U.S. literary circles that she inspires love and rebellion in almost equal measure. Much has been written about Didion over the year. This documentary film, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne and produced by her great-niece Annabelle Dunne, is the first time a film has been made about her.

The Dunne family has been culturally prolific for decades – a creative powerhouse. Griffin Dunne is also a successful actor, appearing in many well-known films, including An American Werewolf in London (1981) and After Hours (1985), and more recently, The Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and I Love Dick (2016-17). Griffin’s father was the best-selling writer Dominick Dunne. His uncle, Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne was also a highly successful writer and literary critic.

Joan Didion The Centre Will Not Hold; Dir.: Griffin Dunne; USA 2017, 94 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5

While Didion and her late husband’s work seems intertwined, each serving as the other’s editor, Didion stands very much in her own right as a writer who has achieved great stature. Her 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, based on her experiences at the centre of 1960s counterculture in San Francisco, first brought her to greater prominence. The book is now hailed as a masterpiece.  It undercuts the utopian image of Haight Ashbury in its flower power heyday. Didion noted then that things were falling apart, that the centre would not hold.

Dunne’s documentary portrait of his aunt, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, had started as a personal project, funded via Kickstarter.  It received an enthusiastic response, very rapidly receiving over $200,000 – testimony to Didion’s dedicated following. Then Netflix picked up the project. Funding no longer an issue, the outcome is a richly textured film, good-looking, with abundant archive material and music.  The project turned into a high-end documentary portrait.

There is a profusion of great anecdotes – the party at Didion’s house, where Janis Joplin turned up and expected fancy drinks; Didion cooking dinner for Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson Family turned State witness; Didion meeting and writing about The Doors – noting what made them so attractive… these are events Didion has already written about, sometimes several times over, but it is the first time we see her talking about this, in a film about her. These are great stories.Didion is now 82. Two years ago, in 2015, she popped up in the general public’s consciousness in a novel way. The fashion brand Céline featured her in their campaign – silver bob and huge black sunglasses; striking features which have remained consistent since the early 1960s.

With the Céline campaign, Didion’s reputation spread even further, well beyond literary circles and the readers of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker or The New York Times – or for that matter, Gawker or Jezebel.  Didion’s influence is not only literary. She is also about style. Not only in the shaping of words and sentences, but also in shaping what has turned out to be a brand – the Didion brand.

There is a paradox in that. While Didion was dissecting the utopia of Haight Ashbury, revealing aspects of darkness, her own image was in the making, any undertow as yet invisible. This is evident in the many photographs of the time, where she appears so coolly understated. More straight-laced than the hippies, and somewhat less straight-laced than Jackie O. The bob, the neat outfits, the big black sunglasses Didion would even wear for breakfast at home, these are all part of the Didion image, as now borrowed by Céline. The 1968 photograph by Julian Wasser, for Time Magazine, of Didion leaning against her Corvette Stingray, has become iconic, and was referred to by Vogue, years later,as iconic.

Didion’s status has grown and strengthened in later life. Her brother-in-law, Dominick Dunne, wrote of her in Vanity Fair, explaining that she came to define a generation. The documentary hints at her force of will and her charisma, which remain evident despite her physical frailty.

The film is a treasure trove of memories, anecdotes, images. The conversations between nephew and aunt offer unexpected insights. It’s in the small touches, the silences, the hand gesture, the pauses, the deadpan replies, the occasional smile.

The silences are ones that only someone close, as Dunne is, can afford to bear, without discomfort. It is the family intimacy Didion and Dunne share that makes the interview work so well. When he sometimes asks his aunt a hard question, when she remembers something touching or sad, her hand gestures amplify. The hands wave towards things for which words are hard to find. It is almost disconcerting, as she is such a restrained, economical, unsentimental speaker.

The documentary is a message of love to a cherished aunt; its poignant, muted background is how much the family suffered from terrible, unexpected losses – early deaths. Dunn’s younger sister died in her early twenties, murdered; an uncle committed suicide, other relatives in a plane crash.  And Didion lost her husband unexpectedly, to a sudden heart-attack, at a time when their daughter, Quintana Roo, was dangerously ill, dying two years later. Those absences are ever-present. While Didion is unsentimental in spirit and understated in manner, as she speaks, one feels the enormity of her loss.

Close friends, old friends, are interviewed. Harrison Ford, who had been her carpenter way back when, at a time when she and her husband were refurbishing their beachside home in California; Vanessa Redgrave, with whom she shares the grief of having lost a daughter; David Hare, the playwright and director, who worked closely with her on two plays, The Year of Living Magically (2005) and Blue Nights (2011), each play dealing with the aftermath of her successive losses. David Hare starts to talk about Blue Nights, but then stops; the film doesn’t return to it. It is an elision strongly felt.

Some readers of Didion feel that she has not disclosed enough, arguing that if she was prepared to write about her daughter, and her loss, then she should be prepared to disclose everything about it. Readers can be greedy. The documentary closes the door to prurience, and the public’s insatiable want to know. It quietly sets solid boundaries around Didion’s life.

It is possible to understand, instinctively, what makes Didion’s writing distinctive: some of it is read in the film, in voice-over. The sense of flow in the sentences, the polished structure, the unflinching and elegant detachment – those things do come across, but they are not discussed in any detail.  Little is said about Didion’s actual writing practice.  She mentions in the film that she writes to find out what she thinks. She has mentioned elsewhere, in print interviews, her editing process, her need for order, her attention to sentence construction, even her rituals, for example, sleeping with the manuscript in her bedroom, close to her.

At one point in the film, Didion’s habit of putting a manuscript in the freezer, when she felt stuck, is alluded to.  But what about the writing process? How does she feel now about Ernest Hemingway and Henry James? They were the great influences of her youth – with the perspective of time, does she see their writing differently? Does she now recognise other influences?  Perhaps Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton?

In a 1977 conversation with the Paris Review, she explained Hemingway’s influence on her, that by examining his writing, she understood how sentences work; she said of Henry James, another strong influence on her, that he was a writer of sentences with sinkholes. Such wonderful insights about writing are the one unexplored thing in this documentary which in other ways feels complete.

There is one moment however, which is sharply revealing, where Dunne captures something about his aunt, asks a surgical question of his own.  Having spoken of Didion’s daughter Quintana, when she was small, and how hard it was to leave behind one’s small child to go and work, Dunne asks her about a moment she had witnessed in Haight Ashbury, and had written about in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: a five-year-old girl, tripping on LSD given to her by her parents.

When Dunne asks her about this moment, Didion pauses, and answers that it was gold. Her journalist’s reflex about a story – which parallels a war photographer’s reflex to capture horror – is an arresting moment in the film. The camera is on Didion’s face. She pauses. Her face is deadpan, serious. Someone unfamiliar with her work might have imagined she would say something heart-felt about the child. But Didion’s mind is on the writing, and she rigorously answers the question by reference to her vocation as a writer, and as a writer only: “It was gold”.

The documentary is feature length, and could have been longer than its hour and a half, especially if it had offered a section on the writing itself. There is an upside to this: this film clearly demands a companion piece. The life has been done; perhaps now we can expect an equally interesting documentary about Joan Didion’s remarkable writing: Joan Didion: The Writing Will Hold.

Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.

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