NYFF 2017: Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

On Film / The Daily — Oct 12, 2017

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.”

Updates, 10/24: “The relationship between Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion limits the movie in certain ways, but opens it up in others,” writes Glenn Kenny. “Mr. Dunne’s longtime family connections and his own prestige as a filmmaker no doubt helped him snag interviews that other documentarians would be hard-pressed to schedule. Ms. Didion’s friend Calvin Trillin is among the interviewees, and while I’d never dare suggest that great writer is not a big get, I was impressed in a different way when Harrison Ford showed up.”

Also in the New York Times, Rachel Syme talks with Dunne and his producer—and cousin—Annabelle Dunne. “Though fans admire Ms. Didion’s ability to write coolly about matters of the heart, Mr. Dunne said that he could not separate his emotions from the filmmaking. ‘It was always going to be a love letter,’ he said. ‘She’s my Aunt Joan.’”

Updates, 10/26: “Seeing the breadth of Didion’s work and its impact on the culture represented cumulatively delivers an unexpected shock to the system,” writes April Wolfe in the Village Voice. “We begin to see the larger narrative unfold from her decades of work, that of the American Dream and its infinite incarnations and failures.”

For Alissa Wilkinson at Vox, “there is something a bit unsatisfactory about Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, especially if you’re already familiar with Didion’s work. It’s laced with Didion’s own words, but—perhaps because it takes a straightforward documentary approach, with archival footage and talking-head interviews and narration—it doesn’t reveal much. More crucially, its workmanlike cinematic language can’t quite capture the urgency and expansiveness of Didion’s vision as a writer, and how keenly and bitingly she managed to forecast the insanities that plague our time.”

Updates, 10/27: For Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, The Center Will Not Hold “does that thing that the best documentaries about writers to: it makes you want to return to its subject’s work as soon as possible.”

“Anyone who likes those Paris Review pieces about the minutiae of writers’ existence will enjoy this film,” advises Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment. “We learn that Didion used to start the day in dark glasses, always with a cold glass of Coke at hand; she also, when stuck, likes to put a difficult manuscript in the freezer. Literally in the freezer. It’s a very beautiful film, rich in images, from family photos and home-movie moments—for some reason, a big red staircase overlooking a Malibu beach feels the absolutely perfect signifier of Californian domestic utopia—to found material, for which Dunne and editor Ann Collins share a very acute eye (find of the film: a photo of a sad, distracted couple on a dance floor somewhere, sometime).”

Rebecca Mead for the New Yorker: “One surprise that The Center Will Not Hold provides is the disparity between Didion’s physical fragility—Dunne’s camera lingers on her hands, gnarled and expressive, and her emaciated arms, which look as if they have been flayed for an anatomist’s dissection—and her voice, which is firm and strong. A formidable sound emanates from this delicate instrument. The film is a model of empathetic reporting: by its end, the viewer’s stand-in is President Obama, who, after bestowing upon Didion the National Medal of Arts, in 2013, holds her antique hands with a carefully calibrated balance of respect and tenderness.”

Andrew Lapin for NPR: “The fans will wish for more details of their queen's most famous pieces: tramping around with acid-washed children in Haight-Ashbury, interviewing members of the Manson family, plopping into El Salvador in the middle of the country's civil war. And the literati might have wanted to hear Didion expound a bit on the political and journalistic landscape of today. Does she think her longtime premonitions of societal collapse are finally coming true? How about thoughts on her many modern-day disciples in the blogosphere, the ones who have taken her authenticity and turned it into a kind of rhetorical currency where only the most soul-baring survive? Dunne seems to have an intuition about how far he can push his aunt on any given subject, and a natural protectiveness around her legacy. While that's as strong a sign of love as any, it gets in the way of a truly probing conversation.”

“It is Joan Didion who saves the film from becoming a well-meaning but unremarkable enterprise,” writes Jacob Bacharach for the New Republic, “and I give Dunne tremendous credit for dragging her back from our stylish efforts to turn her into another dull celebrity, a slim commodity with big black glasses gazing out from a corny fashion ad. He permits her to be as she actually is, very old, a woman—an actual woman—no longer at the height of her powers. This is a service, because we’ve created a cult of genius that makes genius transcendent of our humanity rather than fundamental to it, undimmed until we croak out ‘More light!’ at our dying moment. Poor Goethe probably just wanted another candle, and Joan Didion’s lipstick is messy. Her gestures are a little disconnected from her sentences. She is frail.”

Updates, 10/30: “How would you possibly translate that to the screen?” asks Megan Garber, writing for the Atlantic. “How do you make a film about a writer—about, indeed, the act of writing—that isn’t hopelessly ponderous or ridiculously pompous or, worst of all, boring? For Griffin Dunne . . . , the answer seems to have been straightforward: Take Didion’s advice. Embrace impressionism. Find—and, then, believe in—the grammar in the picture.”

Jake Nevins talks with Dunne for the Guardian: “The challenge was what can I say or show that she hasn’t already written?”

At the Paris Review’s site, you’ll find Linda Kuehl’s complete interview with Didion for the Fall-Winter 1978 issue.

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