The Center Will Not Hold, Getting to Know Joan

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” - Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlemham 

I was 23 years old when I first discovered Joan Didion. My sophomore year in college, spending miserable hours as a disillusioned waitress at a steak house, tossing around the idea of making fiction writing a serious career goal, teetering on the edge of my own dramatic breakdown (as plenty of broke and overly anxious 23 year old women are prone to while trying to decide what it is you want to do with the rest of your life) when I read Play it As it Lays for a post modern literature class. I remember being struck by her cooly constructed prose, sliced, stacked, and loaded. And the sleek attractive woman on the book sleeve staring back at me. The woman with the untried blunt bob and a knack for exposing the dull evils inherit in every day life with the kind of ease we all tried so hard to pin down but could never quite master.

I read Joan and wanted to be like Joan. As a writer, a woman, a force to reckon with. Just like everyone who reads Joan. The more I came to learn about her the more I came to envy everything from her chic wardrobe selections, to the collected prose, to her ability to poignantly frame the ills of this state and all the confusions and contradictions that come attached to a dismal California mind frame. As she writes in the White Album "A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image." California, by all means, respectively (at times painstakingly) belongs to Joan Didion. 

It was all of these factors combined that prompted my initial crush. A crush I saw grow deeper and more enduring with time. If you read here regularly you know. Further evidence of it here now: as I'm sitting at the kitchen table on a rare sunny morning when I have a quiet house to myself, unearthing old video interviews and images of her Easter parties instead of tackling the practical to do list I have had sitting next to me on my desk mocking me all week long. Because her personal life has always proved as interesting to me as her professional. And because the plain fact of her as topic for this blog post justifies yet another excuse for an indulgent dive into the convenient ways of the web where one can easily flood such intrigue with endless images of someone like Joan. To confirm, yet again, why indeed our worship is valid. Video after video. Pin after pin proving she really is as cool as we suspect. And that she - before most - understood the lasting power of "persona." Carefully crafting an image along the way that took her out of the shadowy obscurity most writers happily exist in, to that of a sharply ambitious "IT Girl" of the 60s and 70s, draped with languid appeal around antique furniture in a Hollywood bungalow, chasing the hippy anarchy blooming amidst the streets of San Francisco armed with Italian silk and a leather notepad. Holding that blue eyed baby girl upon her lap in Malibu, looking wind swept and domestic on a wood lined deck in July, holding straight gaze into the lens as she leans into that shining Sting Ray for the shot that would forever define her as the rock star of the literary world. Cigarette pressed between two thin fingertips. Or my personal favorite, knee deep in good lighting, sans bra, skirt hitched to her thigh, face swallowed by the trademark shades in the black and white exposed film where she stood in waters of Hawaii. A period we know her to be infamously lingering on the brink of divorce.

Yet up until now most everything we've known about Joan Didion is only what Joan Didion wanted us to. That she was raised in Sacramento, found a love for sentence structure in copying Hemingway text on a type writer as a teen, she was an uneasy child riddled with fear of the unseen, looming catastrophes that might occur, a migraine sufferer in her later years, a self proclaimed perfectionist, gin drinker, rock fan, and stellar cook. The reason this new Netflix Documentary The Center Will Not Hold is such a big deal is that it offers us - finally - a more intimate glimpse into her outside of her written work. The past told from her point of view. Filmed and directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Who, in defense of the stacked criticism aimed at his soft approach and easily flattering perspective, has openly admitted that this was never going to be anything other than a love note to his Aunt. So it goes. Once we get over the fact that the questions aren't as pressing (because they aren't) or evocative as they would have been coming from another film maker, it can be counted as one hell of a film. As he said, Joan would have never allowed that to happen in the first place. So what we get is what we get and for the most part it's utterly enthralling.

First off, because Joan is the kind of women who has never tried to hide behind the fact that she is anything but shrewdly brilliant. Poised, and studied almost to the point of boasting an underlying elitist air. And direct. But the off moments for me, make for the richest screen time. Seeing her paper thin frame shuffle around the halls of her grand New York loft, camera panning the sun faded family photos showing mostly lost loved ones lining the walls, the collection of old glass lanterns on her mantle, the art and the portraits crowding the space, the careful precision she takes in preparing the cucumber watercress sandwiches, her skeletal hands concentrated when not flailing in animated conversations as she relives the parties they hosted, the stories she chased, the holidays they claimed. It's in these moments that she lives up to every bit the enigma we love. One that she created. Where she is quick to laugh, without an ounce of insecurity behind it. But also reveals a seemingly discerning aspect of her nature - that of a journalist chasing the story, when Griffin asks what she thought of encountering the child high on acid and she describes it, after long pause, as "gold" when the rest of us are mulling over a hundred other phrases that allude more to disgust, disbelief, pity . . .

Her written words read in passages intertwined throughout the film lend a kind of ghostly charm to the storyline unfolding. It's where we are reminded of how effortlessly she speaks the universal language of grief. Better than anyone else I've ever read. Bleeding onto pages these dark and weighed feelings we all know, because we lived inside of them too with our own losses, but haven't the skill to arrange so eloquently. This alone makes us as readers, viewers, feelers, easily connected to her. To her voice and her vision. If only because we are familiar with the grief entombed in those sentences. Feelings that never had voice for us before. And surely the kind of skills that build a legacy as revered as hers.

What I also loved was the insight into her married life. Really in particular, seeing how much sense it makes being married to another writer. One who will essentially allow you the space you need to be as self absorbed as you need to be to thrive in that medium. No one will argue that good writing doesn't come without major self reflection, born only in long hours spent alone. A fact that would sit hard outside another kind of marriage I would imagine. Hearing her speak about them as a couple though revealed how much of their union was rooted in a mutual understanding of the craft they both relished. Without the competition there to taint it. That, and a serious respect for one another which is undeniable in hearing her recounts of their life together. Their marriage, inspiring in an entirely separate way outside of the work. But then again the whole Dunne family is another long time obsession of mine ignited while finding Dominick's work in Vanity Fair in my teens long before I knew of Joan. And who can forget the iconic photo of them all by Annie Lebowitz - Joan, Dominick, Griffin and John in solid stance for the shot. Looking as cooly "smart" as four humans can possibly manage.

As far as qualms go I have only one.  The same one I've held all along regarding her explanation of Quintanna's death. And what led to the progression of that eventual decline. Back in 2003 I bought tickets to hear her read from one of her essays at UCLA and was refunded shortly after when the event was cancelled due to Quintanna's fall. I remember the details being sketchy then and in later years the reasons behind her death remained fuzzy. Ranging from coma, to septic shock, to liver failure, to bird flue, and beyond. What I guess I find most disturbing is the lengths she seems to take to avoid what is most obvious to all those on the inside. That Quintanna died of alcoholism. That she drank herself to death and the ailments she suffered along the way were all linked to that addiction. "Addiction," being one word I've yet to ever hear Didion utter. In other reports it's noted that she appears to outwardly refuse this angle entirely. And I can't help wonder how a woman this enlightened can't find some kind of peace in accepting this as tragic fact to her daughter's eventual demise. Coming from a family plagued by addictions myself, I find it baffling as to why anyone of her sound intellect might work so hard to deny this, but I suppose these are the things that go unpressed the way she prefers.

For now, we'll just have to be content with what we got. An emotionally valuable film about our favorite aging It girl, who's sharp wit proves unwavering, chic bob untouched, and razor sharp views even well into her 80's, still unfolding.

As of now I've already watched it three times and each time I come away newly inspired to work on something else in my own life. My writing, my history knowledge, getting my damn photos framed and making myself a cucumber sandwich for lunch one of these days. Just because.

Another article worth the read,  from 1979:

Joan Didion: Staking Out California