Thursday, November 2, 2017

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold -A Review-

The Netflix documentary Joan Didion, The Center Will Not Hold, directed by Didion's nephew, Griffin Dunne, begins with the classic snippets of 60's culture: Go Ask Alice blares next to images of half-naked teenagers writhing in open spaces or in the littered streets of cities, oversized sunglasses and long hair framing faces without makeup or pretense, but instead often the glazed and slightly unhinged expression of the unstoppably high. It might fool you into thinking that this documentary will be about Didion's life as reflected in and through the culture.

Yet halfway through the documentary we are picked up and summarily plunked in front of another screen, another view into Joan Didion's life; we see now not the culture that surrounded her, the culture that she helped shape with her astute and observant intelligent writing, but instead a plunge into the personal: many photos of Joan, her husband John, their daughter Quintana Roo, and the internal experience of Joan and John's marriage, their adoption of Quintana, a long, dark period of Joan and John's marriage, their various works apart and together, their social life, and then a long drawn-out ending that mirrors the dread and intensity of the long, drawn-out ending of the lives of her most beloved; John died of a heart attack in 2003, followed two years later by the death of Quintana.

"People are afraid of dying because they don't want to leave their loved ones behind," Didion tells the camera. After a long pause, she continues, "I have no one to leave behind."

I was surely the target demography for this documentary. I've been reading Didion since my teenage years, starting with Play It As It Lays and most recently with The Year of Magical Thinking (on her husband, John Dunne's unexpected death) and then Blue Nights (on her daughter Quintana's slightly more expected, tragic death after years of serious illness.) Someone, in other words, who already knew quite a bit about Joan Didion, but was hankering to have this first-time interior view of her life and thoughts.

Many of my friends who have seen the film expressed disappointment–it doesn't give any secrets, it doesn't focus enough on her writing, it doesn't delve into Didion's own reflections on what her work has meant to the country and our culture, it does not delve into how prescient many of Didion's points of views, her obsessions in her work were. While some of all of these subjects are touched on (Joan Didion's zoomed in focus on Dick Cheney's importance as a 'truly evil' government player) they were not, for whatever reason that we aren't privy to, what this documentary was to be.

To me, this makes perfect sense; that a movie about Joan Didion, made by her family member with her full cooperation, would cut out all other discourse once the dying of those who matter most to her begins. This is the same writer who said of Los Angeles that everyone there was struggling with the understanding of complete meaningless, that nothing they were doing or saying had any importance. The same writer who went through a long stretch of inability to write because she was struck with the certainty that writing was meaningless. The same writer who wrote that in the wake of her husband's death, she experienced a series of repeated confrontations with the meaningless of life itself. What clearly was meaningful to Joan Didion was her relationships with her husband and her daughter.

There were subjects touched on that I wasn't aware of; John Dunne's furious temper is mentioned a few times, with growing gravity. Didion calls him a "hothead" and offers that he would get set off by "anything, anything." How exactly this terrible temper showed itself in their life, how that played into their period of separation, and how it may have affected Quintana Roo (who later had an alcohol addiction that appeared to have played into her untimely death)–not a word.

A telling moment is when Didion's nephew asks her how she felt when, as a reporter, she encountered a five-year-old high on acid. "Well, I mean," Didion pauses for a long moment, waving her fingers delicately, and finally says, "It was gold." Honest, and sad. Later in the documentary Didion is recounting a huge party she and John threw, and finding, when she checked on her little daughter upstairs asleep, drug paraphenelia on the floor. "Who would do that?" she asks, still upset with the memory. The jarring disconnect between her emotions toward her 'subjects' and her daughter struck me as important to understanding Didion.

An in-depth analysis of her family dynamics or of her work were not meant to be the focus of Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Instead, this is in a sense an extension of her two previous books about her husband and her daughter. In an interview, she is asked why she didn't want to finish writing The Year of Magical Thinking and she replied that when she wrote, she was in touch with John Dunne. And when the book was done? Didion responded with her mouth in a line and a wave of her hand into the air: Gone.

Didion produced the magnificent work of The Year of Magical Thinking, which the documentary notes is the first book about grieving written by a non-believer. The book was not concerned with anything but love and grief. In the documentary, we are able to see how both intensely fragile–weighing at one point 75 pounds, shaking with what, I wondered, might be Parkinson's, speaking about dissociation and descent into madness during grief–and intensely strong–funneling the deepest pain into bright, piercing words, sentences, books, creating a play and becoming part of the theatre community as healing–Didion is. She is finding again, she tells us, that it ends up being about coming back to who she is.

Without realizing it, over the last decade Didion has revealed exactly who she is: a woman who claimed not to know what falling in love means, but who loved like an involuble molecule, so deeply bound with the lives of those she most adored that since their deaths, all meaning and all living has to pass through the narrow corridor of Didion's memories of their lives and their loss. Writing is an extension of Didion, clearly, but so were her family. Without them here, Didion wants us to remember her loved ones with her. It makes me wonder what she would have said if she had been asked about writing and meaning now, that her work is centered around John and Quintana.

She is sharing them with us; her experience of them in life and death is what she is willing to give. I for one am glad to take it.

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