Left to right: Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. (Image – Julian Wasser/Netflix)
Released on October 27th, 2017, Griffin Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold chronicles his aunt’s prolific writing career and offers a look into the mind of one of the nation’s most intuitive authors. Dunne makes use of archival footage, recent interviews, and a conversation with Joan herself to showcase her incredible talent as a writer as well as her ability to put into words that which many have experienced but struggle to understand: death, grief, and growing old.
Dunne’s documentary doesn’t solely focus on the loss of Joan’s husband and daughter within months of one another, however. Instead, he does what Joan herself does with her writing which is to figure out what she’s saying as she writes it. Similarly, Dunne draws attention to Joan’s particular way of approaching life and writing and all that comes along with the two using excerpts from her own work, figuring out along the way how to capture the enigma that is Joan Didion.
One of my favorite elements of Joan’s work is the purposeful, insightful repetition. She often returns to the same lines several times throughout her work, always self-reflexively using italics and always using them to emphasize a newly worked through revelation or connection to its first use.
In The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Joan works through her grief somewhat indirectly as she analyzes previous conversations, events along with conclusions drawn after the fact. In Blue Nights, the passages I found most meaningful were those in which she discusses the extremely honest and unspoken concerns that come with motherhood:
When we think about adopting a child, or for that matter about having a child at all, we stress the “blessing” aspect. We omit the instant of the sudden chill, the “what-if,” the free fall into certain failure. What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me? And worse yet, worse by far, so much worse as to be unthinkable, except I did think it, everyone who has ever waited to bring a baby home thinks it: what if I fail to love this baby? (p. 58)
What draws me so magnetically to Didion’s writing is her raw vulnerability. In writing about death and grief she somehow adopts a perspective that paradoxically conflates objectivity and subjectivity. Through writing about her personal experiences, the writing is inherently subjective, but her incredible ability to objectively react to her own words and share her insights is a gift that many writers hope to craft but soon realize it’s much easier said than done.
She exposes her deepest fears and addresses her greatest flaws, unapologetically. She discusses her deteriorating health from a place of confusion or disbelief, a common sentiment held towards getting older. She talks about the moments that many work so hard to hide from others – a fall at home that left her unconscious and bleeding, an intense fear that should she try to get up from her chair at a play rehearsal she will not be strong enough and will fall again. She doesn’t tell these stories from a place of cowardice, but rather from a place of instinctual fear towards growing older and her intense honestly feels both necessary and rare.
Dunne’s documentary offers a glimpse into the world and mind of Joan Didion, but still seems to leave the audience wanting more. Perhaps it’s because Joan herself is so careful with her words, but there are times throughout the film where it seems as if she’s just on the edge of something but ultimately doesn’t reveal what’s going on in her head.
One thing I unquestionably took away from The Center Will Not Hold is an even stronger desire to read Didion’s earlier work, especially her journalistic essays and collections like “The White Album” and her piece after which Dunne named his documentary, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. The writing of history in real-time that Joan achieves in these works make me desperately crave for her thoughts and writing on our current political situation. I would pay an ungodly amount of money for a book, or even just an essay in which Joan discusses her thoughts on the shit show that is the Trump administration and what has come of the entire democratic system in general.
On a final semi-related side note, my next tattoo may just be the iconic quote from the title essay of Didion’s “The White Album” : “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. What better way to memorialize an incredible author and individual than to permanently mark you body with their words?
Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold now available on Netflix, right after you’re done bingeing Stranger Things 2.