Whether you know American writer Joan Didion’s restrained, razor-sharp writing or not, this new documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, detailing both Didion’s triumphs and heartbreaks, is worth watching.
Wearing her over-sized dark glasses, with a cigarette dangling from her thin hand, Didion is seen pausing, thinking and then offering a spare, intelligent, wry observation. Her words on the page and aloud are efficient and lyrical. Talk is never cheap when it comes to Didion.
The documentary alternates between showing evocative vintage footage of the illustrious world Didion and her late husband writer John Dunne traveled in (Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Janis Joplin, Brian de Palma to name a few) with recent footage of nephew and aunt looking back over a poignant life fully-felt, including the shocking deaths of both her adored husband John and daughter Quintana within the same year.
A few of my favorite quotes from the film:
While a senior at UC Berkeley, Didion won a writing competition for Vogue enabling her to move to New York and work for Vogue straight out of college. Rather than write about fashion or makeup, her first story was about self-respect:
Character, the willingness to accept one’s responsibility for one’s own life, is the source from which self-respect springs.
This film is not solely about Didion,
but also about the intoxicating, volatile, rebellious, scary sixties. She put herself into her essays, using a new subjective journalism, where her own sense of confusion, isolation and alienation reflected the broader times. Despite this personal element to her writing style, Didion remained a hard-nosed reporter. Covering the hippie generation in Haight Ashbury, she happened upon a 5-year-old boy at a party tripping on acid. When Dunne asked his aunt how she felt about seeing the hallucinating child, she said,
Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for that, good or bad.”
Later she writes about troubles in her marriage.
We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”
Dunne asks his aunt how John Dunne felt about her writing openly about problems in their marriage.
He edited it, she answers. You used your material. You used what you had. And that’s what I had at that moment.”