Notice: There are a few spoilers in this review.
The well-awaited documentary The Center Will Not Hold based on the life of Joan Didion (so far, as she still is alive), was released on Netflix on the 27th of October. The documentary was directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and produced by her niece, Annabelle Dunne.
Joan Didion is a writer, a writer with immense originality. She is regarded highly for her work and idolized for her cool, nonchalant and honest demeanour. In her works one would learn ever so much about her personal life, after all, she wrote her way through grief after she lost both her husband and daughter in the space of just two years. This grief is expressed in her works The Year Of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. How could one possibly learn more personal details about Joan Didion when one has read these two especially? What more could Griffin Dunne possibly show us?
In this documentary, Joan Didion becomes more real than ever before. She almost becomes detached from the Joan Didion that we saw in the Céline ad in Vogue, the muse. She is, for a moment, very much separated from the Joan that posed smoking beside a corvette stingray. The unattainable Joan, the possessor of je ne sais quoi. The survivor of grief, Joan Didion. This may be because she is behind the lens of a family member: Griffin Dunne, her nephew. Dunne illuminates that Joan Didion is not only all of these ‘cool’ things, she is also his “Aunt Joan”. “Aunt Joan” the writer who worked hard. “Aunt Joan” who struggled and wrote her way through grief. “Aunt Joan” who enjoys specifically cold Coca-Cola. Oh and how he does capture this.
In between shots of books, clips from the 1960s/70s New York and California, Joan herself thumbing through pieces of literature, this revelation of the true, personal life of Didion is helped by Dunne’s interviews with the friends of Didion who speak about her and moments that they once shared with her. Susanna Moore, a writer, speaks about the time when she lived with the Didion. Moore speaks about how Didion would come down the stairs “fairly late” in the morning. That she would instantly grab a “cold Coke in the bottle from the refrigerator”, that she would be “wearing sunglasses” and was “silent”. Soon after Moore is presented to share this fact about Didion, Didion remarks: “…if anyone took my last Coca-Cola, we would have a scene in the kitchen”. Watching the documentary, one may in turn get this sense of who Didion truly is when she puts down the pen or when she stops typing. We get an insight into not just the writings but the routines of the writer.
When I think about Joan Didion, as a young aspiring writer, I think: she’s effortless. The intimate interviews with Didion’s friends proved that Didion’s perfection is only as a result of effort. Her image of effortlessness in her work is not the truth, one may suppose this is in the same way that her image of vulnerability and frailty is not the truth either — as she clearly holds an admirable strength to self sacrifice, to write about such grief, such pain. The documentary also highlights all the paradoxes within Didion. Didion was addressed as a “perfectionist” in the documentary. That, if she could not get her head around a piece she was doing, she would take the manuscript and simply “put it in the freezer [in a bag]”. This was pointed out by another personal friend of hers. In turn, this makes her stature seem a little more reachable to those who idolize her.
At once one can understand that Joan Didion is capable of making mistakes or freezing up, too. This is so important when she is holds the timelessness that she does as such a great writer. The documentary then becomes more appealing because it presents Didion in a way that she has never been presented. It is not formal, it is up close and, at times, it is like an old family kept video. This is perhaps only because it was filmed by her nephew. And, in a way, this is what makes the documentary all the more special.
Though, more than anything, Griffin Dunne captures his aunt’s strength in the documentary. Translating the poignancy of the time of grief that Didion endured onto screen with added personal scenes, pictures of her family members that have passed away, clips and voiceovers can make someone see Joan Didion’s unwavering strength. It is when watching this documentary that one may really feel that sentence that Didion wrote once as a title for the collection of nonfiction pieces: We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live. As one may watch Didion, she is ever so slight, and ‘frail’, in a sense. But she clearly is not. And this alone is illustrated by what was revealed in the documentary: that she “almost abandoned” Blue Nights, her piece on the grief she felt after her daughter Quintana died. Griffin Dunne also documents the strength of his aunt through certain speeches of hers in the piece. “I want you to know exactly what you’re getting… a woman, who for some time now has felt radically separated from most… ideas that interest other people” Joan Didion is strong in the sense that she is unapologetic about her work, she has her interests and she will write them. And this fact is very much echoed at the end of the documentary as the writer walks down her hall. There is a voiceover by Joan concluding “remember what it is to be me, that is the point”.
I felt as though this documentary gives an insight into the warmth and life of Joan Didion but reaffirms the fact that Didion is a writer, and a strong, “fierce” one, too. With an enviable amount of self-respect. Not only does it reveal a lot about the life and times of Didion so far, there is material in the documentary that the audience can learn from as people. And, material that writers can learn from. As Didion is so “fierce” in her writing, and she writes the truth. She wrote the truth. This documentary reminds us to revisit or visit her works so that one can learn this truth and continue to write and/or tell the truth of our times that, alike to the time of Didion, are troubled and uncertain.