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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

I Cover the Waterfront: On Joan Didion

I am embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of Joan Didion until May of this year, when Sue Halpern (the college’s favorite scholar-in-residence) gave me a copy of her essay collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

As I made my way through Didion’s masterpiece, I was reminded of what Christopher Hitchens once said about Nabokov: great writers make us want to write, yet simultaneously think, “perhaps I shouldn’t be in the writing business.” Over the weekend I borrowed another of her essay collections, “The White Album,” from the library and experienced that feeling once again.

Didion, now 82, is the subject of a new Netflix documentary entitled, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.” The film falls into one of my favorite genres: documentaries about writers. In recent years we have seen the lives of folks like Gore Vidal, Roger Ebert, James Baldwin and Fran Lebowitz explored on the big screen. These documentaries have enriched our understanding of their influence on American culture, and “The Center Will Not Hold” is no exception.

Like Didion’s more prolific essays, the film is strung together by vignettes that don’t seem to be related until we near its conclusion. It is directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, who is perceptive enough to realize that we are not interested in a videographic biography. After all, it would be impossible to cram a life as full as Didion’s into 90 minutes.

Nor are we interested in hearing from a neverending stream of interviewees. This is the problem I had with “Everything is Copy,” the 2015 documentary about Nora Ephron. The film included an interview with, I think, every celebrity Ephron had ever met, and paid little attention to whether the interview was actually interesting or informative. I wanted to hear more about Nora, not banal anecdotes from Steven Spielberg.

This is not the case in “The Center Will Not Hold.” As director, Dunne is far more economical with interviews. Yes, there are stars in the film — Harrison Ford, Anna Wintour, Tom Brokaw — but their screen time is kept to a minimum, and their insights actually enhance and advance the story being told.

The film’s best moment comes when Didion is asked about the time she encountered a five-year-old girl who was tripping on LSD, which she records in her 1967 essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” When Dunne asks his aunt to elaborate on what that discovery was like, she pauses. In the coming seconds we expect Didion to talk about how sad or angry she was to find a child in such a condition. But, instead, she leans in and says, “Let me tell you, it was gold. That’s the long and the short of it, is you live for moments like that if you are doing a piece. Good or bad.”

It is through moments like these that we see what made Didion such a beloved and influential writer: intellectual honesty, a disdain for cliche, and a kind of detachment from society that allowed her to so brilliantly capture the culture of whichever decade she was/is writing in.

As Fran Lebowitz says in her 2009 documentary, “Public Speaking,” it is the goal of writers to influence the culture, and Didion has certainly done that. In the film, the late Robert Silvers, the founding editor of the New York Review of Books, summed up her role in American society in one sentence, “I wanted to know, as a matter of my own curiosity, as an editor and as a friend, what she thought.”

And there it is. About how many of today’s writers could the same be said? I’m not sure, but I know I could list their names on a Post-it note with room to spare.

Like Hitchens’ observation about Nabokov, “The Center Will Not Hold” delivers two irreconcilable reminders: how badly we need writers like Joan Didion and how unlikely we are to find them.

Will DiGravio is the managing editor of this paper.