USA, 2017, 94 min
It’s really rather strange that no one has made a documentary film about Joan Didion, one of the most respected and treasured writers of her generation. Like Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Dyer – to name two authors who invite comparison – she’s an author who has turned writing not only into a way of life, but as a means to discovering who she is and what she thinks. As far as I can tell, there’s no sharp dividing line between the person Joan Didion and the writer; when going through difficult times, it’s precisely the world of writing she withdraws into. Writing is a kind of homecoming, or, as she says towards the end The Center Will Not Hold, a way “to remember who she really is.”
In Didion’s essayistic exploration of identity politics – an art form which traces its origins back to Michel de Montaigne late 16th century writings – investigating oneself becomes part of investigating the world.
The most striking example of this relationship between life and work is arguably her two latest books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The first deals with the loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne, the second with the loss of their daughter, Quintana Dunne. That it’s through the former most Norwegians know Didion shouldn’t surprise us, one is tempted to say, as this is a book where the nature of sorrow is lived through – written through – in detail.
At the moment, the only book I can think of which comes close to describing the process of losing a loved one with the same intensity and intimacy is Roland Barthes’ book on the death of his mother. But whereas Barthes book, with its haiku-like aphorisms, reads like a diary, Didion’s is closer both to what happened and to how she thinks in the aftermath of the death.
She has trouble getting rid of his shoes, for what will happen if he needs them when he comes back?
Dunne tells Didion’s story chronologically, structuring the film around central texts from her writings, excerpts of which are read as we go along. Archival footage from her life (including several interviews) is also weaved into the story. But the human core is anchored in Didion herself, who comments her own life and texts. That the film is directed by Didion’s nephew, (who also conducts the interviews) imbues it with additional warmth; it’s obvious that they care about each other. It’s a moving sight to behold the now 82-year old Didion looking back at her life’s work.
The film is also enriched by the presence of the many friends and collaborative partners Didion has had through the years, not least the editor at the New York Review of Books – an admirable editor in every way – who encouraged her to go for it in the magazine’s political commentary section. He fully trusted her judgement when she wanted to write about a group of African American men who stood accused of having raped a woman in Central Park.
The result is one of her finest texts, a manifesto on how to disregard whatever everyone else may mean about a case and think for yourself.
On a more critical note, Dunne’s reluctance to address thornier issues stands out. This is particularly true when it comes to her daughter Quintana’s death and Didion’s relationship with food. It emerges during the film that Quintana drank too much – a fact Didion states directly (for the first time, probably) – but Dunne doesn’t pursue this any further. That is strange; the drinking is obviously a sore point for Didion, and quite possibly related to her own neglect.
Was she an absent mother? Has she been too focussed on her writing and celebrity friends? This remains unclear and should have been followed up by the director.
The same is true of Didion’s relationship with food. In both recent and older photos of her we see how skinny Didion is (and was). With several of her friends even commenting on how worried they are about her food intake, the director’s reluctance to delve deeper is strange.
Kids on acid
In another scene, in an interview sequence dealing with The Summer of Love and the essay collection Slouching Towards Bethelem, we’re told about Didion’s visit to a party in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. Here she comes across a lipstick-wearing five-year-old on acid. When asked by the director what Didion thought about this she answers that “it was gold.”
I had to catch my breath for a moment before realizing that this is gold because Didion is after all a writer and that, as such, she was looking for points of entry into the time she was living in, for scenes that captured its essence. That this is emphatically not gold from a human point of view isn’t explored further, nor is the nature of this journalistic nugget examined in greater detail. Taking this scene as a starting point, this leaves me wanting to know more about what she thinks about writing, but this opportunity is left unexplored.
These flaws drag down the overall impression, prompting me to ask: Could it be fear of delving into the really touchy details that leaves this hanging in the air? I don’t know, but despite certain imperfections this remains a very good – and for many people highly anticipated – film portrait of Didion – and probably the best introduction to her.