The Center Will Not Hold (2017)
Words by Mina Brennan
The Center Will Not Hold (2017)
Beware, after watching this documentary you will feel the urge to go out and purchase a very large pair of sunglasses, sit with a notebook, and see the world as Didion did through her glamorous shades- whilst drinking copious amounts of Coca-Cola, on the rocks.
During the sixties, the United States was in the throes of hippiedom, drugs and sex. Rock ‘n’ Roll and carefree living was the new religion for the young: people swarmed to festivals and fields like church on a Sunday. It was a phenomenon. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) Didion curated essays which followed this narrative. She placed herself in the middle of San Francisco in all its madness, always managing to comment on the remarkable, winding together seemingly unseeable narratives. In some ways, her beauty and elegance juxtaposed with the cold certainty of her writing. I think about that image often: Joan reclining lazily against a vintage corvette, cigarette in hand. In one interpretation her disposition is serene. In another, she’s staring down the camera, as if to say: “what are you looking at?”
“A dead snake is the same as having a snake.” Didion was known for saying. In this Didion was referring to actual snakes not metaphorical ones, but it’s hard not to see this as something more, something which we should take with us. A phrase we should remember. And in ways it is a phrase I have remembered and perhaps always will. So, in a similar vein, I’ll remember the words of Didion rather than Dunne’s documentary.
The style at times failed to close the gap between modern and archival, at times cheesy when showing old photographs which then swiftly cut to overly lit and staged interviews. It all felt too clean and crisp, perhaps slightly too formal. However, Didion’s ability to throw you a one liner out of nowhere kept the documentary alive. At all times when she was referring to something seemingly benign you knew it meant more than what was on paper. If this documentary wasn’t centred around such an interesting subject, I believe it would have failed to capture my attention in the way that it did. If it weren’t for Didion's intellectual and gut striking writing, then the production would have easily felt like a PowerPoint slideshow with a narration placed on top, though at times it still did. The film seemed to be on the outskirts of its subject, darting and diving without much visual substance.
It is interesting to think what this documentary could have achieved if it hadn’t been directed by Didion’s nephew. Perhaps a director like Scorsese could have put a magnifying glass on all the grit surrounding Didion’s life, the messiness of the era and some of Didion’s darker idiosyncrasies. At times it certainly felt as though we were treading carefully around more tense subjects. And it was made clear that these eggshells were not ours to tread on. It certainly felt as though Dunne was afraid to comment on certain aspects of Didion’s story. At one-point Didion is talking about a specifically haunting circumstance she found herself in when writing Slouching Toward Bethlehem. She had been taken to a house by a source of hers, where she was presented with a small child on acid. A haunting image. Dunne asks what it was like to witness such a thing, in response Didion announces that it was gold, perfect for her writing. This detachment is never really questioned. And I wonder if it hadn’t been someone so close to her directing then perhaps this aspect of her personality would have been commented on. It would have made an interesting take.
At times I wanted to close my eyes and listen to Didion, her voice, so strong yet soft in tone, reaches out toward you through the screen. I found myself hanging onto every word, taking it all in and wishing I could have Didion on quick dial to give poetic advice whenever needed. The subject of grief was handled impeccably and with delicacy, mostly because of Joan’s steady and honest writing style.