Joan Didion is one of the most influential voices in American literature. Now Netflix has made a documentary about he
“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer.” It was these lines from Slouching Towards Bethlehem that made Joan Didion famous in 1968, literally overnight. Her astute reflections on modern California stood in stark contrast to the American Dream – a dream that had begun to crumble. Families could no longer pay their loans, cities decayed, crime rose, and young people moved across the country.
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She took “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming as the famous collection of essay’s opening lines. Those words remained in the writer’s mind for years and marked the beginning of her literary journalistic work. Now a documentary of the same name – and so far the only one made about Joan Didion – is available on Netflix. Director Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, portrays the life and work of the great writer in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. In addition to archive material and personal interviews with Anna Wintour, Calvin Trillin, David Hare, and Harrison Ford, the now 82-year-old writer also has her own say.
Didion moved from New York to Los Angeles with her husband John Gregory Dunne four years before Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published. A short time later, they adopted their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. Originally intended to be a short pit stop, California ended up becoming the family home for more than 20 years. The pair of authors soon surrounded themselves with the Who’s Who of literature, art, film and music – and were always close to the center of the action.
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In her novels, essays, and commentary, Didion captured the sociocultural and political upheavals of her time with documentary precision and a poetically subjective manner in the unconventional style of New Journalism. She had found an unmistakable tone – whether in her portraits of Janis Joplin and Ronald Reagan, in books such as Salvador and Miami, or in her conversations with Linda Kasabian on the Manson murders in The White Album. “That was a weird situation. Finding myself cooking dinner for Linda Kasabian and her child,” Didion said. After the death of her husband and daughter, she laid out everything about the sharp sting of grief, which makes The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights the most personal of her works.
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In her conversations with her nephew, Didion becomes tangible, liberated of the myth of the figure into which she has grown over the decades and showing herself as both flawed and vulnerable. The director’s empathy is overwhelming, which makes Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold less an objective journalistic documentary and more of an homage to one of the most important female writers in modern America. You see Joan Didion up close, as you otherwise would only through reading. It almost feels as if times long gone have come back to life.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is available exclusively on Netflix.
Fashion, art, and pop culture are her cosmos; the written word, the material she uses to bring it all together. After studying in Leipzig, Lola Fröbe moved to Berlin in 2014. She works as a PR consultant and freelance journalist for publications such as L'Officiel, i-D, and Material Magazine.