Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Synopsis: Literary icon Joan Didion reflects on her remarkable career and personal struggles in this intimate documentary directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): Griffin Dunne
Production: Netflix
  3 nominations.
Rotten Tomatoes:
94 min


I went to San Francisco

because I had not been able to work

in some months.

I'd been paralyzed by the conviction

that writing was an irrelevant act...

that the world as I had understood it

no longer existed.

It was the first time

I'd dealt directly and flatly

with the evidence of atomization,

the proof that things fall apart.

If I was to work again,

it would be necessary for me

to come to terms with disorder.

When snakes would appear

so much in your...

in your later work,

was that an unconscious...

image, do you think, from growing up?

I think it was an unconscious image

from growing up, yeah.

But, I mean, snakes appeared

in my later work because they just...

They were always on my mind.

You had to avoid them.

- Do you have snakes?

- Hmm?

- You have snakes?

- I have no snakes.

I'm not a big fan of snakes.

Well, how do you know up in the country?


I just take a rake and kill it.

Killing a snake is the same as

having a snake.

- Oh, yes, that's true.

My first notebook was a

Big 5 tablet given to me by my mother

with the sensible suggestion

I stop whining

and learn to amuse myself

by writing my thoughts.

The first entry is a woman

who believes herself

to be freezing to death

in the arctic night...

only to find when day breaks she has

stumbled on to the Sahara desert

where she will

die of the heat before lunch.

I have no idea what turn of

a 5-year-old's mind

could have prompted so

insistently ironic and exotic a story.

But it does reveal

a predilection for the extreme

which has dogged me into adult life.

My Aunt Joan grew up on

stories of the doomed Donner party.

Her family actually

traveled across the plains with them.

They parted company when the Donners

insisted on taking an uncharted shortcut.

Instead, her family followed

the map that they brought

which safely guided them

to the last frontier...


"I was born in Sacramento

and lived in California most of my life.

I learned to swim in the Sacramento

and the American rivers before the dams.

I learned to drive on the levees

up and downriver from Sacramento.

Yet California has remained

in some way impenetrable to me,

a wearying enigma...

as it has to many of us

who were from there."

My family had come to Sacramento

in the 19th century.

They came to it as a frontier.

And it was the last frontier.

Don't you think people are formed

by the landscape they grow up in?

It formed everything I ever think,

or ever do, or am.

I remember once

when we were snowbound,

my mother gave me

several old copies of Vogue...

and pointed out an announcement

the competition Vogue then had

for college seniors, the Prix de Paris.

First prize, a job in Paris or New York.

"You could win that," my mother said.

"You could win that

and live in Paris, or New York,

wherever you wanted.

But definitely you could win it."

My senior year at Berkeley, I did win it.

I got out of Berkeley,

and I was offered a job at Vogue.

So, I moved to New York to take the job.

It was very thrilling to me, naturally.

When I first saw New York, I was 20.

And it was summer time,

and the warm air smelled of mildew

and some instinct

programmed by all the movies

I'd ever seen

and all the songs I'd ever heard sung

and the stories

I'd read about New York

informed me it would never

be quite the same again.

In fact, it never was.

When she was here,

you know, some time ago,

it was at a moment in

Vogue's history when,

if you were an editor,

you'd still wear a hat and gloves.

And if you were just an assistant,

no gloves, no hat.

I mean, it was just a very...

Everyone was addressed by Ms. or Mrs.

I mean, it was a very different time.

It would be exciting,

because Vogue was the preeminent

fashion magazine.

You had to learn to...

write with irony,

or with a kind of humor, you know,

something that would grab the reader.

You had to do it in this short space.

You didn't have the luxury of

writing, and writing, and writing.

They would've been a little daunted

by some of the editors.

Allene Talmey,

whom, uh, Joan obviously knew,

she could be very frightening.

I remember she would have

this big aquamarine ring.

She'd get violently

crossing, x-ing out things, muttering:

"Action verbs, action verbs."

And everybody who lasted with her...

basically learned to write.

The first thing I wrote for Vogue was

"Self-respect, its source, its power."

They had assigned a piece called...

"Self-respect, its source, its power."

They put it on the cover.

And the writer didn't materialize.

No piece came in.

So, I had to write it.

People with self-respect

exhibit a certain toughness,

a kind of moral nerve.

They display what was

once called "character"...

a quality which although

approved in abstract

sometimes loses ground to other,

more instantly negotiable virtues.

"Character," the willingness to accept

responsibility for one's own life,

is the source from which

self-respect springs.

However long we postpone it,

we eventually lie down alone...

in that notoriously uncomfortable bed,

the one we make ourselves.

Whether or not we sleep in it

depends, of course,

on whether or not we respect ourselves.

It seems that would be unusual

for Vogue to have a voice like that,

that personal. Was it?

Well, it was probably...

sort of unusual, yeah.

You might have pieces on ways of

doing makeup or something like that

but these weren't like that.

They were personal pieces.

I started writing a novel, basically,

when I came to New York.

That was sort of what you... did.

You got out of school,

and now you were gonna write a novel.

So, I'd work all day at Vogue

then I'd come home...

and have dinner or whatever and do this.

I didn't have any

real clear picture of how to do it.

So, I would just do parts of it.

And then I would just pin up

these parts on the walls of my apartment.

I think ten people read it.

I think a total of 11 copies were sold.

First time I saw her in print

was probably her first novel

which was Run River.

It's not her best novel,

but it was her first, and it was the, uh...

The, uh, story about people we knew.

It was a Sacramento story.

So, I've always enjoyed that.

"Here was the story

about my father.

There was about him a sadness so pervasive

that it colored even those moments

when he seemed to be having a good time.

He could be in the middle of a party at

our own house, sitting at the piano,

a bourbon highball always within reach.

The tension he transmitted

would seem so great

that I would have to leave,

run to my room and close the door."

My father was severely depressed.

I didn't realize that at the time.

I thought...

this depressed behavior

was totally normal.

"We went to the movies

three or four afternoons a week.

And it was there that

I first saw John Wayne.

I heard him tell a girl in a picture

he'd build her a house

at the bend in the river

where the cottonwoods grow.

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Sean Quetulio

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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