November 3, 2017

by Amelia Smithe

Joan Didion wrote her first story about a woman who believed herself to be dying of cold in the Arctic night, only to wake in the midst of the Sahara Desert and realise that it is the heat that will take her life.

She was only five years old.

In many ways, this story reveals more about Didion than Netflix-produced documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold manages to. Indeed, one of the main reasons Didion is revered as the most important essayist of our time is because of how revealing her work is.

That isn’t to say the documentary is in any way redundant. For those unfamiliar with her writing, it’s sure to spark some interest. Perhaps more importantly though, The Center Will Not Hold reveals a more comfortable, even mortal side of the deific author. This is no doubt due to the fact that the film was directed by Griffin Dunne, Didion’s Academy Award nominated nephew. Their intimacy is palpable, and proved the main reason Didion was willing to appear in the project.

Dunne captures a sweeping overview of Didion’s career as the definitive scribe of her era. From the dark side of the hippy movement, to the disaffected youths who committed the Manson murders, Didion chronicled a traumatic shift in American society from the centre of it all.

Her work was daunting, often dangerous, and always insightful, but the film takes almost a passive approach to conveying it. The scene in which Didion describes the moment she entered an apartment to find a five year old high on LSD as “gold”, for instance, is a masterful glimpse of the mix of empathy and dislocation required for a journalist to cover such repulsive affairs, but it isn’t explored.

This is a shame, especially when considering the more personable elements of the documentary, which cover Didion’s relationship with her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and daughter Quintana. Both died suddenly within a period of two years, and the grief these tragedies manifested resulted in some of the writer’s most profound and important work. But just as important is the role Didion’s family played in her life while her career was in full swing. This is especially the case for John, who Didion talks of almost like an anchor that stopped her from being sucked into the void as she “participated in the paranoia of the time”.

How? Once again, it seems like Dunne expects viewers will look to Didion’s writing for the answers. Yes, these answers exist within the complexities of Didion’s written words, but not exploring them in the film feels like a missed opportunity.

Most fans of Didion’s work are likely to agree, even while they celebrate the fact that a documentary exists at all.

As the centre continues to collapse, Didion’s writing remains as relevant as ever. And it should. From Hitchens to Malcolm, the most influential essayists over the last 50 years owe a great debt to her. For those curious to understand why, The Center Will Not Hold makes for a worthwhile starting point. For everyone else, you might just prefer to dust off your copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Year of Magical Thinking.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
is available on Netflix now.

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