Bookended with Joan Didion’s voice and words on loss, the new, highly-anticipated documentary on her life made by her nephew Griffin Dunne, begins with a breaking - “a proof that things falls apart.”
The Centre Will Not Hold is peak Didion: bringing the reader (or in this case viewer) into her bedroom and pushing them away right when things get really interesting, fading to black or cutting to an interview with Anna Wintour or dissolving into a flickering reel of old home movies playing on a projector. Anyone who has read Didion, arguably the most famous personal essayist in the world, is familiar with this push-and-pull, and if you were hoping that The Centre would finally break through the pattern, you’re going to be disappointed.
It’s more enjoyable then to just sit back and enjoy the carefully curated anecdotes Dunne, Didion and her merry band of famous friends dole out: Harrison Ford describing his stint as a Didion-Dunne carpenter, or the time when Warren Beatty harboured a flaming crush on Didion and angled to sit next to her at parties. Here’s our favourite: Didion’s friend talking about Joan sitting on a couch in her sunglasses with a can of Coco Cola, and that distinct sound of a tin of almonds being opened as she wordlessly ate them every morning.
“He was the buffer between me and the world,” she muses, and instantly, that’s all you ever want your partner to be.
Binding it all together is Didion’s sense of disenchantment, at first with New York (“That was my 28th year when I first learned this lesson, that it was entirely possible to stay too long at the fair”); with the social contract and politics; with her marriage to John Gregory Dunne, who she spent a large chunk of her life with. Didion at no point romanticizes love; she talks instead of watching Westerns and John Wayne who promises, “I will build you a house, at the bend of the river where the cotton wool grows,” and notes that never happened with her. What happened instead was that she met her husband, a “hothead” who she adopted a daughter with, who edited every word she wrote, who she considered divorcing, and whose death lead to The Year Of Magical Thinking, perhaps her most famous work yet. “He was the buffer between me and the world,” she muses, and instantly, that’s all you ever want your partner to be.
Dunne does a convincing job of taking us from sepia toned photographs of Didion and John Gregory Dunne mid-ball to scenes from their home in Portuguese Bend, complete with tide pools, sand crabs and a bare chested John reading the Sunday Peanuts cartoon strip. These are accompanied by Didion’s prose, which travels through the documentary like a third character. There is enough here to keep us interested, even though we know how it will all end: with the death of both Didion’s daughter and husband, and the long years of grief that follow.
Later, you’ll remember most, like we do, her fragile wrists sweeping across the screen, conveying expanses of life and loss, inviting us in and always keeping us at arm’s length.
Getting There: Available for viewing on Netflix.
(This review was contributed by Kakul Gautam who can be found on Instagram @hyperbolemuch talking about Stories in Urdu).
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