Stand long enough on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., in front of the Harvard Coop, and every cultural figure of consequence will come to you. That's not an exaggeration. Because it's within the bubble of privilege that is Harvard, people who create the artifacts of our age are pulled to this spot by the magic of unlimited money and influence.
I know, because I worked there. One day I'd escort Deborah Harry up the escalator. The next, I'd order books for John Updike. I met Philip Glass and the Dalai Lama on the same day.
One typical Thursday, Tom Wolfe walked in. White suit. Homburg. I handed him a copy of The New Journalism I'd picked up in my travels. "The British version!" he said with a smile and inquired which of the anthology's writers was my favorite. Hunter S. Thompson. He put his ornate swirl on a page, spun the book and tapped a name. "You'd like this," he offered. Not Joan Didion. Or her husband, John Gregory Dunne. James Mills.
I never got around to Mills. Or Dunne, or Didion. But, having watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, I feel up to speed on two of the three. The new Netflix production offers a provocative introduction to the author's work.
It's an intimate portrait of the artist, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Much of the picture was shot in Didion's Manhattan apartment and feels less like an interview than a family reunion.
Dunne's approach is as traditional as Didion's essays were unconventional. In archival footage, we see her at Vogue. Calvin Trillin talking-heads the period when he worked at Time with John Gregory Dunne, the marriage of the two writers and the friendship that survived that tempestuous union. "He was a hothead," Didion declares. "I'm not."
Dunne was also, we see, perpetually in second place. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) put Didion on the map. In 1979, The White Album cemented her standing as an important voice. Playwright David Hare and theater critic Hilton Als comment on Didion's themes, including the notion of a broken social contract, what Hare terms "a horror of disorder" and an inability to locate meaning in the events about which she wrote.
Of course, she often wrote about inherently meaningless events: the Manson killings, the Central Park wilding, Ramon Novarro's murder. She had a sort of night vision. Where contemporaries saw the Summer of Love, Didion visited Haight-Ashbury and saw anarchy loosed upon the world, "misplaced children" and "torn cities." The viewer of this film begins to question her perspective.
Didion's later darkness is understandable. Her husband and daughter died in quick succession. The work she wrought from grief — The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011) — is wrenching.
But why was she so bummed out before? Dunne withholds what The White Album reveals — the author's precarious psychological state throughout adult life. While the film describes her father as "severely depressed," no mention is made of the nervous breakdown Didion suffered in 1968, her psychiatric treatment or her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Repeated viewing tends to suggest there's some validity to Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's controversial 1980 assessment that Didion's "subject is always herself" and her writing "sounds good" but "doesn't signify." The film performs a service by exposing viewers to just enough work and just enough disapproving worldview to equip us to judge whether this is journalism that holds up now that it's no longer new.