Kimberly writes a short essay on her conflicted feelings toward the literary giant and Jane sums up the documentary in a Cinemashrink Trove Pick. Both agree it’s a must watch!
I have a love/hate relationship with Joan Didion and after watching the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold that still rings true for me.
The woman can no doubt carve a mean sentence. The first book I read of hers was The Year of Magical Thinking about her year of strange grief after her husband died alongside the progression of her daughter’s mysterious illness. I finished it in a day, so transfixed was I at her distinctive, compelling, and thoughtful cadence of writing that invites the reader in for one hell of a ride. Didion is the queen of the meanderingly direct. Then I read Blue Nights about her daughter’s death. Because these were the first two books of hers I read, and they were intensely personal as opposed to her earlier journalistic or fictional pieces, I found myself in awe of her unflinching honesty. This was the same kind of awe I felt while discovering Anais Nin and Erica Jong—a woman who wrote with intelligence and strength.
As a writer, I was immediately envious of Joan. In the movie, we see that her career trajectory began with a lucky assignment from Vogue magazine, in which she penned a piece on self-esteem when another writer failed to deliver. This piece catapulted her voice onto the mainstream radar and kick-started her journey into analyzing and writing about American culture for the masses. But she wasn’t merely an observer; she was a part of the culture, name-dropping in her pieces about her glamorous life in California, an epitome of cool, and a gorgeous dame with her ever-present cigarette. She was everything I ever wanted to be, the woman I had dreamed of becoming from the confines of my desert bedroom. But as I continued to read her work, and as I watched the film, a steady sense of uncertainty began to forge cracks in her perfect façade.
For instance, I am conflicted on how I feel about her as a mother. It is hinted at in the film, and in many other accounts I’ve read by others, that her daughter Quintana Roo was a serious alcoholic. Joan says in the film that Quintana drank too much, and in fact, met her husband at a bar she frequented. But that is a mere side note to the portrayal of a fairytale wedding. In the book about Quintana’s death, alcoholism is never mentioned alongside the searing melancholy of Didion’s grappling with time, the past, and her own mortality. It’s almost as if Joan is wearing blinders, which strikes me as odd considering she is so forthcoming about every other aspect of her life. It’s as if there is a very real strong-willed denial in the mother portion of her being. In that, I feel coldness.
Coldness and a cool as a cucumber sense of calculated distance emanate from Didion for me. This is the very trait that makes her an impeccable journalist. She is able to present information to us without judgment. In the movie, she is asked about a scene in her seminal essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem in which she saw a toddler on LSD at the height of the Haight-Ashbury years. Her eyes brighten as she describes it as being gold. For better or for worse, she says, it was gold. She is speaking from a journalist’s perspective, rather than a humanist perspective, and this is where my conflict with her lies.
There’s the part of me who admires her as a woman who did exactly what she wanted in life. She went after her dreams and was wildly successful. She makes no apologies. Her face, even at 83, belies a steely determination that I find inspiring. And her words, there is no doubt, that she is a genius with words. But I am left with the question that plagues me often as a woman and an artist/writer – that being, if one devotes their life to a relentless pursuit of their art, and indeed makes their art the most important thing in their life, and in fact, actually creates work that makes a major impact on society, elevated to historical status, then do we look the other way when it comes to their human shortcomings?
I think back to a conversation I had with an old boyfriend upon visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona. I was remarking on Wright’s amazing oeuvre, his prolific body of work. My boyfriend said architects make horrible husbands, alluding to the notion that people who create magnificent things don’t have time or energy to focus on being good people. As if being a genius comes with a get out of jail free card.
As the documentary unfolds, we see Joan, even in her signs of aging and her thin appearance that denotes fragility, as being the same woman she was when she began her career. She seems to have no regrets. I am left wondering if this woman ever cries. I am left searching for an authentic sense of vulnerability underneath her exquisite ability to explain everything away with an animated flip of those deceptively, gaunt hands. And, I am still, as ever, in awe of her prose.
IF you’ve read and followed Joan Didion following us, particularly the ‘us’ who are her age and have seen what she’s seen,
SEE The Center Will Not Hold, knowing the title link to Yeats of 1919 mirrors our fears today, and look upon Joan Didion’s wispy grip on our fragile world with wonder,
BECAUSE her eye-leveled viewpoints shockingly close to a wordless reality we see very well ourselves and thus welcome her construction of poetic prose.
(Thin as paper, plumped up by friends, Joan Didion holds the center in this loving documentary in which her striking personal losses read like a tragic myth, only with intimate family photo-ops and her books. Queen Zixi of Ix caught my eye.)