The first film I saw at the Woodstock Film Festival is actually a film I could watch on Netflix as it’s release date is October 27. But I’m pleased that I didn’t wait. …, a documentary about the writer Joan Didion, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, director and actor, Griffin Dunne is very special.
We start out learning something about Ms. Didion’s character through her ancestors… a group of pioneers who traveled with the Donner family; but instead of taking the deadly pass, separated and took the long way around to the West and survived. Ms. Didion is a real survivor too … she survived living in LA during the late sixties’ violence and the Charles Manson era. She survives the loss of her beloved husband and writing partner John Gregory Dunne and not much later, her only daughter Quintana. She writes constantly throughout all these life passages, not only to not only report on events, but to reach a deeper understanding for herself of how she feels about them. New journalism.
The film shows her early successes with magazine articles and later books like The Year of Magical Thinking and Play it as it Lays, and film scripts. She has a point of view that is very her, very unique. We watch her mental processes as she tries to make sense of uneasy connections… how when Roman Polanski, once spilling red wine on her dress , corresponds to later in life finding herself writing about Linda Kasabian (one of Charles Manson’s girls) and then helping her buy a dress for court.
Ms. Didion has a rich mind, able to both detach as a journalist and at the same time create beautiful, sultry sentences as an essayist.
Mr. Dunne, so well liked in Werewolves in London has directed other films before, but this film has a mature resonance. He loves his aunt, but is willing to go underneath and probe around a bit. The ‘dark’ side of the Irish is all throughout this film. Ms. Didion shows us by her example how not to be devoured by these challenging aspects of life, love and loss. This is as true for the audience as it may be for Mr. Dunne, who lost his own sister in a well publicized and violent circumstance..
There is plenty of humor in the film, too; Calvin Trillin’s anecdotes really lighten things up and the archival footage, thoughtful and plentiful, takes us through the many stages of Didion’s life in New York and California. Music is used very well and Mr. Dunne’s narration never overwhelms the story but keeps it all nicely in the family.