SHARE
Joan Didion conceals her life as she reveals it. Tradlands | Flickr

In the last scene of her film memoir, the camera centers on Joan Didion’s hands: gnarled, veined, gripping the hands of her friend as she once held the pen that made her one of the master craftsmen of fiction and nonfiction since the 1960s. 

In “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion holds the reins. The Netflix documentary, filmed by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne, released Friday, takes its title from a poem by W.B. Yeats — but almost nothing else from outside Joan Didion’s influence.

What emerges is a Didion essay writ large. The masterful journalist and novelist is its center, its shaping force, playing both the portrait and the portrait artist, wielding the pen and the interview couch to strike us with the story as she sees it. In “The Center Will Not Hold,” the 82-year-old, 5-foot-nothing writer looms large and enigmatic as ever, concealing her life even as she reveals it.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century and one of its most fearless writers, Didion has electrified the journalistic scene from the beginning with her impeccable eye for telling detail and with her willingness to enter into her work, yet playing the part of the cool observer. In her first essay collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion analyzed a late ’60s counterculture that she believed was more than hippies doing drugs; it was an entire generation of disaffected children. The climax of the titular essay occurs in a closing interview with a young girl who tells Didion she goes to “High Kindergarten”: Her mother has been giving her acid since she was four years old.

In the documentary, Didion claims that this interview was “gold,” from a journalist’s point of view. This was Didion’s kind of story, bleak and telling, a bomb to drop at the end of a piece, a picture of her native California’s center slipping.

The documentary follows Didion’s life and work by interweaving readings from Didion’s work in her own voice and those of others, anecdotes from friends (generally related in Didion’s presence; her reactions steal the spotlight), and a lengthy personal interview. It focuses less on Didion’s novels and journalism than on her marriage with John Dunne, a fellow writer with a strong personality, editing advice, and mutual belief that nothing in their private life was off limits in their writing (Dunne edited a Didion essay that baldly confessed the two were in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce”).

Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana said that as a mother, Didion was alright, but rather aloof. This stuns Didion, who considers her daughter the center of much of her life (and certainly her writing, in her middle period and later in the bleak and beautiful “Blue Nights”). But both positions make sense: Didion’s small family was the core of the writer’s life and the subject of it.

Didion’s relationship with John and Quintana come as close to humanizing Didion in what Netflix calls an “intimate documentary.” The documentary builds up to the central event of Didion’s life: the losses of husband and daughter in quick succession in 2003 and 2005. In the aftermath of Dunne’s death, Didion wrote her most well-known work, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir that confronts the startling reality of death outside the comforts of religious belief. In 2011, Didion did the same with “Blue Nights,” about Quintana. For Didion, the initial loss is not the worst one; it is the fading of their memory, like the sky dimming behind city lights at dusk. 

This picture of Dunne’s and Quintana’s dusk elicits empathy and admiration for the poetry in her prose. But there is a paradoxical power in writing through one’s grief.

On the one hand, she presents a fearless account of staring into the abyss of grief. As she has always done, she writes to understand. Here, she writes to cope.

On the other hand, she distances herself through her writing, as she has always done. In presenting her writing through personal pain in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Blue Nights,” and now in “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion crafts an image of herself that is not so empathetic as chivalric. In taking on the drug epidemics of the ’70s, civil wars in Guatemala, and her own grief, Didion is America’s most diminutive knight of letters, our small but mighty wielder of the pen. We love her for it, and rightly.

This distancing is the age-old problem of literature. We learn about our own lives from our writers, but we also envy them as they express (and thus seem to understand) the human experience better than we can. Art becomes artifact, and Didion’s life has always been more than a life: it is a drama with herself as the main character, a Stoic heroine who leaves no stone unturned in her search for a story.

Didion does not deny the effects of her attempts to fabricate control through writing; she admits that after the loss of the small family that defined much of her writing career, her center nearly did not hold. Her collaborators on the play version of “The Year of Magical Thinking” set up a “Café Didion” to force her to eat after she dwindled to an alarming 75 pounds. The woman who stared open-eyed into the grave nearly wrote herself into it.

The documentary ends with Didion’s 2013 reception of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, which plays like Barack Obama’s knighting of an American hero. And of course, she is that. But the Didion of the ’70s drug epidemics and the Guatemalan civil wars — and of her own bleak books on grief — would not see this as the full story.

I wonder what Didion is writing now. I wonder what the famously aloof political essayist would think of the regard of President Obama. Probably she would shrug off her accolades in true Didion fashion. Possibly she would use her fame as the vehicle for an impeccably crafted analysis of an administration that could hold its status as cultural authorities more lightly.

I chalk the hagiography up to Griffin Dunne, but the core of the story is pure Didion. “The Center Will Not Hold” is much of what we wanted to hear from Didion, and nothing that she did not want us to see. And as a self-portrait of Didion, “The Center Will Not Hold” is true to its subject: clear-eyed to a fault, heroic to the end.