Joan Didion has always been keenly aware of the ways that things fall apart. Her defining essay, the unblinking "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," took a calmly alarmed assessment of the 1967 Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco. The first words: "The center was not holding." Her body of work, nonfiction and fiction alike, both recoils from and embraces disorder.
Now she's the well-deserving focus of a new documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, premiering Friday on Netflix. Directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, who also interviews Didion throughout the film, Center is no less insightful for being a family affair. This is an intensive appreciation of perhaps the greatest living American essayist, and one of the best ever. It plays like a finely tuned authorized biography.
Didion, now 82, was among the first writers to zoom in on the dark side of the '60s, especially as it unfolded on the West Coast. She interviewed Manson Family member Linda Kasabian, and she spent time in the studio with the Doors.
Immersing herself in the chemically enhanced chaos of the Haight in the summer of '67, Didion hung out with dropouts, dealers, junkies and guardian angels trying to hang on to some meaning in the dusk of a short-term Utopia.
"Slouching Towards Bethlehem," which, like the documentary, takes its name from the Yeats poem "The Second Coming," doesn't explicitly judge. It doesn't have to. The impressionistic sequence of vignettes portrays a lost generation, living from one LSD trip to the next. The essay ends when Didion visits a scenester and encounters a 5-year-old girl. "She keeps licking her lips in concentration, and the only off thing about her is that she's wearing white lipstick." It turns out she's on acid.
The moment might be meant to shock, but Didion writes with such incisive clarity and fly-on-the wall perspective that provocation seems beside the point. Besides, as she says in the film, "It was gold. You live for a moment like that if you're doing a piece."
It's Didion in a nutshell. In the preface to the collection that takes its name from the essay, she explains her craft thusly: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." Then, the kicker: "And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out."
She wrote fiction along with her peerless nonfiction, including the novel Play It As It Lays and the screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park, on which she collaborated with her husband, John Gregory Dunne (Griffin Dunne's uncle). The documentary is quite frank about their marital difficulties, which both husband and wife wrote about. They stayed together until 2003, when Dunne died of a heart attack at the dining table. Two years later, their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, died after a long illness.
Talk about things falling apart. Didion responded as she always had: by writing. She grieved, certainly, but in order to understand that grief she put it into words. As she says in the film, "The reason I had to write it down was that nobody had told me what it was like." Her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled her life in the year following Dunne's death. It won the National Book Award. In 2011's Blue Nights, she wrote about Quintana's death. As her editor Shelley Wanger says in the film, "She writes to figure out what she thinks and what she feels."
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." That line comes from Didion's The White Album, and it became the title of the essential 2006 Everyman's Library Didion nonfiction collection. It's also a fine explanation for how and why she has kept doing what she does.