Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 06, 2017 7:52 am 
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Beautiful biodoc lacking an edge

This film about the writer Joan Didion was made by her nephew, who knows many of the people she and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, also knew, and has her obvious confidence, even affection. That makes for a warm and celebratory film that can be enjoyed for many reasons. It's also often beautiful, because Didion was always elegant and stylish and lived with great taste. When you hear that Didion graduated from Berkeley and in senior year won the Vogue Prix de Paris, that her mother had long ago told her she could win, went to work for Vogue magazine in New York, and soon wrote a cover piece; when you hear that her new husband Dunne, who was on the staff of Esquire, called Joan from work and said after a drunken night, "'Do you mind if I quit?', and she said "No," and he said "We'll figure out what I'm going to do," and went in and gave his notice; when you hear about Vogue in the Fifties, its odd mix of informality and rigid structure - you know you're visiting a bygone day that, for these people, was just great, and that, as Didion says of New York when she got there, we will never see again.

Funnily enough, Didion describes her life with relish - and clarity - but her key style was apocalyptic. That suited America's sense of itself from midcentury on, apparently, and also suited the kind of writing that went into magazines at the time. It may suit the way we are now, and always will be, as long as we are. But there's a pose in it. It seeks to shock. And while Didion's style is stunning and elegant, there is a kind of staginess. One may contrast this with Susan Sontag, the other great woman writer of nonfiction prose of this American generation. Sontag seems more concerned with what she is saying and less with the impression she's creating. Correspondingly they work in different units. Didion is a master of the sentence and Sontag a master of paragraphs.

But back to Dunn's film. It is a bicoastal story. The Didions, with the Donner Party but not making their fatal digression from the proper course, had crossed to the West as pioneers and settled in Sacramento, and she grew up there, while retaining an invaluable ability always to find California a strange place. She and Gregory left New York to go back to California, to Los Angeles. Though her first published book was the forgotten novel about Sacramento Run, River (1963), our sense of what first put Joan Didion on the map is Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her 1968 book whose lead essay is about the Haight Ashbury. Listen to Joan talk about what it was like to find a 5-year-old girl wearing white lipstick who for some time had been fed LSD by her mother. "It was gold. .. you live for moments like that if you're doing a piece." Didion charms with this kind of shocker, her admission that she is a kind of vulture, a vulture with a killer prose style. David Hare notes this early piece shows a typical "horror of disorder" in Joan. She pounces on social disasters, the ugly side of Haight Ashbury, the Sharon Tate murders; much later the injustices of the Central Park jogger case dealt with in her 1991 "Sentimental Journeys" in the New York Review of Books, which became an ideal medium for her longer essays and more political ones.

The film has a lot of good information about her most important work, but doesn't fit Didion adequately into context, particularly the "New Journalism." But obviously while Tom Wolfe was a fussy over-explainer shooting a thousand arrows to hit his target, Didion worked with a few deft touches. She makes the far, far better prose model, the better assigned text for writing courses, if a far harder model to follow successfully. (This film doesn't mention Sontag or Wofe.)

There are warm interviews with Tom Brokaw, clearly like Warren Beatty a great admirer of Didion, and with Harrison Ford, who did carpentry work for Dunne and Didion on their Malibu place when an actor more aspiring than successful, and with others. But in the absence of truly searching interviews, that challenge Didion or draw her out on unsuspected or difficult subjects, there is simply a beautiful celebration of this remarkable writer that makes deft use of read passages from her prose (read by others as well as her at different times) and superbly wields stock footage. Suddenly a random scene in black and white of people partying expresses why, at 28, Didion could no longer stand New York. There is an art to this, but it's not the art of the investigative documentarian. Instead come the amusing, attractive trappings, the big sunglasses, the Coca Cola for breakfast, the Corvettes, the cigarettes, putting the manuscripts she's stuck on in the freezer, literally the freezer. Cool. But she deserves better.

One thing that emerges, especially through this family-style documentary of Didion, is how her pieces are enhanced by the glamor of her life. When the Sharon Tate murders occurred she had connections with Nathalie Wood, who called to tell of it, and Roman Polanski, who'd ruined a dress she bought for her wedding the day JFK was assassinated. These personal connections are given apocalyptic, doomy significance, and Didion's tone seems to connect her own life with her conviction that current events are unlike any others in history. But that is what popular sociologists always claim; it gives their work an air of greater significance and builds their readership. Pop sociologists also always declare with absolute certainty the significance of events while they're happening, which can't really be done.

Didion has never gone out of style and her current fame goes back to the personal with her recent, searing studies of the sudden death of her husband and her inability to deal with it, The Year of Magical Thinking, made into a one-person play by David Hare that starred Vanessa Redgrave; and the sequel, Blue Nights, about the long death of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, in her early thirties. Here is another place where a critical examination is necessary, particularly to show Quintana died of alcoholism, and to probe into how the adoring Dunne and Didion could have allowed this to happen.

Didion's talk about picking out a dress for Linda Kassabian to testify on the Sharon Tate murders at Magnin's and serving her dinner is a triumph of elegantly abandoning all objectivity in nonfiction writing. It's really just random, but she dramatizes it so well it seems somehow important, even as she's declaring it to be "senseless." But this is the beauty of Didion's writing: she can make everything in her life seem hyper-significant. The only trouble is, this would be a great film if it challenged her claims and thus give them credit for their bold absurdity. She may claim false significance for events, and for her writing, but it's still the best writing of its kind the time produced. Too bad she hasn't gotten the truly tough documentary that she deserves. Meanwhile, this still is an atmospheric one - and in it Didion herself, now, talking, with wild gestures that may be from MS (left unmentioned here, like her severe migraines), is the immensely appealing center of it.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, 94 mins., debuted at the New York film festival 11 Oct. 2017 and showed at Woodstock and Middleburg; it opened in limited theaters and on Netflix 27 Oct.

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