Cast: Joan Didion,Hilton Als,David Hare,Phyllis Rifield,Amy Robinson,Shelley Wanger
Director: Griffin Dunne
For a large part of her life, Joan Didion has been as much the story as she is the writer. She is by all accounts, a phenomenal author and has left an indelible mark in both fiction writing as well as literary journalism. However her writings when added to her enigmatic personality have given rise to Joan Didion, the icon. The Guardian expresses this evolution best when it says, “The pioneer of New Journalism is used to sell biker jackets and clutch bags. What a pity she’s quoted more than she’s read.”
It is in this context that the new Netflix documentary (directed by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne) finds its place in the sun. Writers themselves are rarely good subjects for movies. Their legacy is written and not given to visuals — unlike say, a movie star or a politician. The documentary-maker is then left with old photographs and interviews to stitch together into a cohesive narrative. It’s a tough task and unfortunately Griffin fails to conjure something special out of it.
The movie starts with visuals of 1960s San Francisco with hippies everywhere. This is but logical because her writings on 1960s and 70s America form some of the most basic texts on life back then. She wrote about Las Vegas weddings, Joan Baez’s idealism, and the counter-cultural movement of the flower children in San Francisco.
The film springs to life when it turns to the first piece she wrote for Vogue and you begin to comprehend what Didion was capable of even when she was barely out of college.
It’s all in the writing
“People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues…. Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
Didion wrote the above-mentioned lines for Vogue in 1961. She wasn’t describing anything unknown. And yet, the remarkable articulation she is able to give to an idea vaguely known to most of us is possibly what makes her the writer she is.
Griffin peppers the documentary with readings from Didion’s writings. These are of course necessary to understand Didion but are problematic because they so easily outstrip the movie in terms of holding your interest. Indeed, every time one of these extracts are read, you immediately wish you were reading the book instead of watching this movie.
Also, as mentioned above, Griffin doesn’t have a lot of source visuals to work from. This renders the film an uneasy mix of real and recreated/non-Didion footage, which takes away from the experience and you never really feel immersed in the movie.
The family affairs
A large part of the documentary is dedicated to Didion’s family. She married writer John Gregory Dunne and they adopted a girl named Quintana. The latter half of the documentary specifically dives deep into the relationships Didion had with them both.
And yet, it doesn’t dive quite deep enough. The Atlantic while reviewing Didion’s biography written by Tracy Dougherty’s called John “irascible and prone to grudges”. He often told his friends that his marriage was a week-to-week affair. These tensions are not explored adequately in the documentary and raise questions as to the director’s impartiality towards the characters (Griffin’s father is John’s brother).
Quintana’s troubles too are glossed over in the film. Her heavy drinking is alluded to once, but her psychiatric issues and her biological family find little mention.
One understands that Didion is the subject of the documentary and John and Quintana are secondary characters. However Griffin has made a conscious choice to include Didion’s family into this. And this choice is justified given that one of Didion’s greatest works is The Year of Magical Thinking, which is an account of her grief after her husband passed away. She also wrote about Quintana’s death in Blue Nights.
Didion’s personal life has greatly influence her writings and thereby must be part of any biography centred on her. However Griffin’s incomplete portrayal does disservice to Didion and reduces the credence of this documentary.
A good subject does not a good movie make
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold has a truly remarkable subject at its heart. If nothing else, it will nudge many viewers to pick up Didion’s writings and that is an achievement it can be proud of.
As a documentary however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Didion’s works and life carry the film but at no point does it feel that Griffin adds anything to the entire project. A good documentary either must deal with a completely unknown subject or seek to give different perspectives to known things. This film does neither.
The Joan Didion story is fascinating and deserves to be part of our cultural knowledge. However through her books, she has already articulated it far better than any filmmaker ever could.