It was only my recent study of W. B Yeats that drew me to this seemingly unassuming Netflix documentary. In fact, thirty or so minutes of the showing elapsed before I realised I’d already read Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), which shares this documentary’s namesake, a year prior. Intimately directed by one of Didion’s only living relatives, her nephew Griffin Dunne, The Centre Will Not Hold (2017), chronicles Didion’s literary career through strikingly personal archives, and spoken excerpts.
Didion, through Dunne’s careful and dignified direction, becomes the raconteur of her own mesmerising biopic. Though Didion is movingly frail — impossibly — fragile, by the point of filming, her sharp mind has not been weathered, and her unscripted testimonies are crafted just as strikingly as those read from her acclaimed novels and essays. She narrates the birth of her career, which began by chance, when success in a sponsored essay contest granted her the opportunity to write for Vogue in New York, at just 22.
The audience is indulged in this stiflingly chic era through the portals of fashion, music and cinema, as well as through Didion’s highly stylised fiction and essays. And yet, the disorientating reality of this period for an amateur reporter pierces the otherwise nostalgic fantasies of this retrospective documentary. The cultural chaos of a post-war America, reconstructing it’s sexual, social, and moral code, gave way to all preconceived norms. The nation’s centre, quite literally, would not hold.
Vignette video archives of 60s California, golden with the decade’s sensual heat, perpetuate our glamorised preconceptions, while Didion’s sharp and sobering commentaries overlay and undercut Dunne’s rich collection of visuals. The pleasure of watching such a juxtaposition of style and subject matter is, most likely, because it reflects the exact manner of Didion’s literary creations. Refinery is employed to depict vulgarity, constructing a necessary magnetic field between the reported depravity, and those who once sought to shield themselves from it.
Dunne’s own dynamic style of reporting, on not just Joan’s career, but also the centrality of her tightly interwoven private life, at last gives a voice to the evolving woman behind this journalistic martyr. Viewers take heed of Didion’s profound self-sacrifice, as the currency of her success proves to be at significant personal expense. Dunne’s intimate archives of Didion’s entrance into motherhood reveal a distinct sensitivity surrounding the absurd distortion of the sanctity of childhood amongst the drug-riddled communities of Los Angeles. Didion laments the harrowing experience of reporting on a child high on acid, while, in her necessarily detached manner, accepting the encounter’s journalistic wealth. Dunne closely intertwines this account with Didion’s nostalgic reflections on motherhood, as at around this time herself and John Dunne adopted their only child, Quintana.
Throughout, Dunne reports on the running visual metaphor interlaced with Didion’s experience of private and public adversity, that of the serpent, the recurring hiss of evil. Omnipresent in the wild transgressions of the social and sexual laboratory of LA, Didion held the serpent’s neck at a distance, reporting on its every twitch and turn in the heady undergrowth, until, at last, it began to hiss in her own backyard. The sudden and successive deaths of her husband and child left Didion a skeletal shadow of the woman she had once been.
The familial intimacy between Didion, and those Dunne chooses to interview her alongside (himself included), saturates the documentary with an overwhelming rawness. Didion, only occasionally on the edge of forgetfulness, seems epiphanous in this pilgrimage of shared remembrance. And yet, her rich nostalgia is soon overruled by grief.
Dunne closely captures Didion’s disquieting paranoia and the bleakness that has eroded her. And yet the clarity, the painful purity of her mourning, closes Dunne’s chronicle with a sense of peace. Blue Nights (2011) embroiders the loose threads of Didion’s grief, guilt, and anguish into a mesmerising memoir for Quintana.
Joan passed away just four years after the production of this encapsulating documentary, in December 2021. It’s unmatched intimacy, and speculative sophistication renders Dunne’s work more than just an insightful biopic, but a fragment of America’s literary and journalistic history, pioneered by Joan’s voice of revolutionary intellect, and female strength.
Illustration: Verity Laycock