Joan Didion is a terrific writer, her commentary is incisive, insightful and ticked off in a distinctive rhythm that is pregnant with intent. She knows what she’s doing. Not just in the substance of her words but the way they are delivered. She’s my favorite type of journalist, one who understands that the way you tell the story is just as important as the content – maybe more so. My favorite essay of hers is a piece she wrote about Woody Allen in the New York Review Of Books called “Letters From Manhattan” it’s a beautiful hit job in which she pinpoints the inherent phoniness and reductive pseudo intellectualism in his work post Annie Hall. Even better, she takes down his audience for essentially being a bunch of parrot brained sheep, devoted to his movies more for their trendy appeal, than their actual cinematic worth – which she contends is slim at best. While I don’t agree entirely with her critique, it’s still fun as hell to read. What I love best about it is, how much of herself shines through in the prose – and her argument. You can tell, there’s something personal in the way she so deliciously tears apart his work, dismissing it as light-weight dross. She’s torpedoing a competitor who’s infringing upon her territory…her audience of parrot-brained, pseudo intellectual sheep.
In the new Netflix Documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne, none of that spark and insight shines through. It is a rather dull and uninspiring trifle, a vague overview of her life and career as a writer. In it, she comes across not as the powerful essayist and commentator she was, but as a name dropping, navel gazing bore. It does her a disservice, which is ironic, because Dunne has described his film as a ‘love letter to aunt Joan’. Ultimately, in his deferential effort to step lightly in her portrayal, we’re left with a vague, gauzy account of her life. There are no revelations here, no insights – just a frail woman having a chat with her nephew.
There was, of course, the obligatory coverage of her most famous literary contributions, and the deaths of her beloved husband and daughter, but it all felt stale and slightly queasy. It didn’t help that she appeared so painfully thin and fragile…as if she barely had the energy to speak. Her weight is briefly touched on, and it is inferred that she may have some sort of eating disorder. Much like the rest of the film, however, it’s not gone into in depth.
When I finished watching it, I went back to read that essay on Woody Allen, and was struck by the opening line.
“Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. “
It’s a rock hurled at the head of Allen. She’s saying, his neurotic navel-gazing in and of itself is not art. It made me think that her contempt for his work might have been in some way related to some inner conversation she was having with herself. The truth is, all writers are self-absorbed, and the greatest art is borne out of that self-absorption. It’s all about how you personally express it. That’s what made her writing so strong — and Woody’s for that matter.
The way you tell a story is just as important as the content — maybe even more so.
In the new Netflix Documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne, none of her spark and insight shine through.