• [The Daily] NYFF 2017: Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

    By David Hudson


    Tonight, Griffin Dunne will be at the Walter Reade Theater to take part in a Q&A following a screening of the documentary he’s made about his aunt, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. The New York Film Festival will then present the film once more on Saturday as part of its Spotlight on Documentary program.

    For Variety, Brent Lang talks with Dunne, but first: “Joan Didion has been at the center of our cultural and political life for more than five decades, writing incisively on everything from war to rock music to murder in books such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and Salvador. As an essayist, novelist, critic, and screenwriter, she’s inspired a passionate following that is nearly unmatched in American letters. That status reached near deification levels with 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she reflects on her own personal tragedy, recounting her grief after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and her struggle to deal with the fatal illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo. By writing so unflinchingly about such a painful topic, she formed an even deeper connection with her readers.”

    The Center Will Not Hold “provides a concise overview of her ever-shifting career, from the early essays to the novels to the political writing, and recounts the tragedy that led to her most recent books, but its main attraction is the voice of Didion herself,” writes Craig Hubert for the Literary Hub. “While she offers little that even the most casual admirer of her work won’t already know, it’s her presence that makes the film stand out—the author’s physical fragility, on full display, adds a layer of poignancy that permeates everything around it.”

    Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey: “Sometimes she seems to search for the words, in a way we don’t expect from one of the single finest wordsmiths of our time, but then she zonks you; it was just a well-placed beat, or the ramp-up to a laugh line that she’s clearly thought out in advance, and it couldn’t matter less (‘I wasn’t surprised that it was turned into a movie. I wish they’d turned it into a better movie’). The decades she’s spent defining that persona make The Center Will Not Hold all the more valuable; this is a very personal portrait.”

    Last month, Dana Spiotta visited Didion and Dunne for Vogue and noted that the film “doesn’t ignore her glamour, but, perhaps because it was made by family, it adds something new: a tender, life-size portrait of Joan Didion as a person. In their scenes together, she and Griffin have a touching rapport; when he recalls first meeting her as a young boy, she laughs at the memory and leans into him, entirely at ease. Her deep attachment to family is not news to Didion readers—she has written about her mother and father and extensively about her husband and daughter. But to see her family and friends telling her story alongside the readings from her work is to make it all seem of a piece, to bring the whole of the life into focus.”

    Updates: David Hare, who adapted The Year of Magical Thinking as a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave, “recalls how concerned he was for Didion's health during the show's run, to the point where he had a mock ‘cafe’ installed at the theater so that he could make sure she was getting enough to eat,” notes Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter. “Also featuring commentary by such figures as Redgrave, Calvin Trillin, critic Hilton Als, novelist Susanna Moore and Anna Wintour (who indicates that she took the assignment seriously by not wearing her trademark sunglasses), Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold feels scattershot and rough-hewn, marred by such stylistic missteps as a distracting over-reliance on stock footage. But while the film proves a less than definitive portrait of its subject, it certainly delivers a plethora of fascinating and amusing moments along the way.”

    “The extended depiction of Didion and [John Gregory] Dunne’s years together in California in the 1970s, intended to highlight the delightful dangers of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll era, comes across as gauche nostalgia in the current moment,” finds Caroline Madden at IndieWire. “Paradoxically, it is the film’s breathers from family that give the author’s work the credit it’s due.”

    Updates, 10/14: “This is not a hagiography or a standard tribute to Didion,” writes Dan Callahan for TheWrap. “Because of her own questioning presence on screen and also her voice-over when she reads from her own work, Didion seems to be in charge of this movie, and she does not flatter herself. She admits to a lot, including the ruthlessness and dispassion needed to write journalism on her high level.”

    “She takes the same laser-like focus to her own personal life as she did to her journalistic subjects,” adds Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “And she was an unsparing journalist. She dissects the hills and valleys of her life with clinical precision, and we see how her life influenced her work. ‘You use what you have,’ she tells us at one point, ‘and that is what I had at the moment.’”

    Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker: “A career and a life are a lot to cover in 90 minutes; Dunne does it, but with very little room to breathe. His film fails to show us how Didion lives now, nor does it probe some of her more provocative statements from the past (her takedown of the women’s movement in The White Album comes to mind). Dunne’s film will help newcomers decide where to begin with Didion, and for that it’s a useful, competently made document. But I can’t help but want more from a filmmaker with such intimate access to one of the greatest living writers.”

    Updates, 10/22:Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a documentary that’s incisive and haunting, like Didion’s best writing,” finds Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “It’s been Didion’s karma to lead a charmed life in which she could write about American darkness. But then the darkness hit her, personally, all at once. For a while, her own center didn’t hold. But she became something more than a great writer—she became a sage.”

    The Center Will Not Hold is a loving late-career tribute that never feels overstated,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “It also never really attempts to interrogate her talent, or delve much into why she was the writer she was. Perhaps there’s no real answer to that, but it does feel as if an entirely separate film could be made about Didion the Writer, her experiences in the field and abroad, the origins of now-timeless essays.”

    Update, 10/23: “I can’t wait to work with a script, where I know how it begins and ends,” Dunne tells Steve Erickson at RogerEbert.com. “It was an incredible experience, but my history and experience has been with narrative. Part of what humbled me is that I loved every day of editing, but three years of that, with all the shooting and interviews…you know what you want with a narrative film and when you get it. I never knew when I got it. I never felt I had it. I never knew when to move on. I’d like to do a narrative next.”

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