October 31, 2017

The Joan Didion documentary “was always going to be a love letter”


Joan Didion

On Friday, Netflix began streaming “The Center Will Not Hold,” the long-awaited documentary about Joan Didion directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne.

“It was always going to be a love letter,” Dunne recently told the New York Times’ Rachel Syme, and while that might be just fine for the converted among us, it’s probably less satisfying for the curious. The film hews pretty closely to a familiar narrative: Didion’s childhood in Sacramento, the Vogue prize that brought her to New York, her marriage to John Gregory Dunne, the California essays of the sixites and seventies, and, of course, the twin tragedies that are the subjects of The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

There are surprises, too, but they’re mostly of the anecdotal variety. Didion appears to have mostly survived off of Coca-Colas, cigarettes, and almonds, for example. Harrison Ford was once hired as a contractor to remodel the house in Malibu. Warren Beatty had a crush on her.

In a piece for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead attributes much of this withholding to Dunne’s proximity to his subject: “[Didion] was his beloved relative, one who had entrusted him with her story after allowing no others to approach,” she writes. “Dunne’s empathy prevents him from looking to hard, or too long.”

She’s probably right, but “The Center Will Not Hold” is also, as Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, “a monument to strategic self-control. It is fighting against the notion of the author as fashion, the author as brand — the author as transaction. Didion, this film makes clear, owes us nothing.”

For readers in New York, “The Center Will Not Hold” is showing all week at Metrograph.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.