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Joan Didion circa 1970

“JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD” My rating: B (Now on Netflix)

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

As an introduction to the life and work of one of our finest observers of contemporary American life, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” fulfills one of the major obligations of a literary biography. It spurs the viewer to actually read the author’s books.

Whatever its shortcomings, this documentary from Didion’s nephew, actor/filmmaker Griffin Dunne, has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new Didion geeks. And that’s a good thing.

We’re introduced to Dunne’s octogenarian subject through a recent interview.  Didion looks frail and withered, but her brain clicks along smoothly.

Her salient feature, she says, is a “predilection for the extreme.” In her life, her career, her choice of subject matter, that predilection holds steady.

A native Californian, she was encouraged to keep a journal by her mother. Winning a writing contest sponsored by Vogue, Didion went directly from college to that chronicle of New York fashion despite knowing next to nothing about clothing. Instead she wrote personal essays that spoke to millions of other young women.

These would become her calling cards…autobiographical essays that formed a history of our times.

During the upheaval of the Sixties she wrote rock ‘n’ roll profiles (the Doors) and a legendary piece on Haight Ashbury in its prime (“the horror of disorder”).  Branching out, she covered the civil war in Salvador (opposing a CIA-backed government), the Central Park Jogger incident (she never accepted the guilt of the young black men convicted in the crime and exonerated years later) and even turned to politics (she was the first major writer to recognize the soullessness of Dick Cheney). (more…)

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