Joan Didion

55th NYFF kicks off with an intimate Joan Didion documentary.

We’re not in Cannes anymore, Toto. If you need proof, look only to the popcorn machine.

New York Film Festival

The culture shock which I’ve described earlier upon entering that most prestigious of festivals in the French Riviera this past summer is one I won’t soon recover from.

Now back home, it’s left my expectations flapping in the wind as I made my way to the 55th annual New York Film Festival, taking place over the next few weeks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was my first time attending, and I was eager to see how it compared, acknowledging at once both the peculiar reversal of expectations that comes with cutting one’s teeth on the film event all others aspire to, and that my experience at Cannes did little to help prepare me for my first role as a credentialed film critic back in New York. 

The vibe at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on Monday was decidedly casual. When I arrived that morning in a pressed white shirt, anxious for want of a suit jacket and recalling the fashion police that guarded every entryway into the French Palais, I found the dress code to be decidedly untucked. Middle-aged men and women wandered comfortably around the small atrium notched into the shoulder of The Julliard School, many greeting each other warmly as they milled into the Press and Industry Office.

The Press and Industry Office is a converted conference room, empty save three folding tables and a small, bookish staff handing over credentials beneath a large poster of La Dolce Vita. On the way to the theater, there is a small concession stand selling, yes, popcorn, which a few of the younger freelancers partook in as they headed into the first screening of the day. The whole thing was decidedly ordinary, in a distanced, New Yorkian way. I was struck by the familiarity of it. I’d never been to Lincoln Center before, but the subway stop was on my regular commute. 

A double take was needed to remind me, these modestly dressed attendees were, in fact, a major division of the New York intelligentsia, the theater filled with critics representing everyone from The New York Times to n+1. The festival won’t open to the public for another ten days.

The first film about Joan Didion to make its world premiere at Lincoln Center in so many ways echoed what NYFF is all about.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

The first film to make its world premiere at Lincoln Center was a documentary – Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold – which, in so many ways echoed what NYFF is about, or seems about to me. At once deeply intimate and monumental, Didion’s life story is presented by Griffin Dunne, an actor and documentary director with a varied career, who also happens to be the literary icon’s nephew. The film, Dunne’s “tribute to Aunt Joan” is, like Didion’s corpus, a singularly American narrative that crosses almost imperceptibly between intimate detail and national renown.

Didion herself is the main voice of the piece; though Dunne holds the role of official narrator, his best work is onscreen, asking thoughtful questions which his aunt answers even more thoughtfully. Slowly and in person, the two attempt to reconstruct the swath Didion cut through the chaos of the postwar United States, accomplished best when Dunne gets unexpectedly personal, and Didion placidly thoughtful. The film’s first grasp of the details illuminating such a life is the supreme payoff of such a close connection between filmmaker and subject. On top of this, Didion rivals Dunne in voiceovers, mostly taken from readings of her work – occasionally the only way to convey points the movie has to make. She is 82 now, but about twenty years drop from her voice in delivering her writing.

Watching in the Walter Reade, I was struck by the proximity between the world of the film and the crowd watching it.

Griffin Dunne
Griffin Dunne

Joan Didion began her career in journalism when she won a writing contest for Vogue and went on to write several successful novels, screenplays, and collections of essays, often working with her husband, the late John Gregory Dunne.

Though much of her life was spent in California, where she was born, her early and late careers are marked by her forays into the New York literary scenes of the early 60s and late 90s. Anna Wintour is interviewed, as is Harrison Ford (who built the addition for the couple’s house in Malibu before he was an actor) but the core cutaways go to Hilton Als and Calvin Trillin of New Yorker acclaim, and prominent Broadway playwright David Ware.

Watching in the Walter Reade, I was struck by the way their anecdotes landed like inside jokes with the crowd, many of whom swam in the same circles and those onscreen. The eldest reporters could easily have rubbed elbows with Didion or her husband during their stints at Vogue and Time, respectively.

Part of the appeal of going to film festivals is the proximity of audience and subject – often a film’s creators become their guests of honor – but never have I felt so involved in the world of a nonfiction film. Documenteur, subject and audience, at this point, all seemed a part of the same extended family.

And that’s an intoxicating feeling when degrees between yourself and someone like Didion wane. It’s surely what the director intended, in immersing us in her world. The film’s format interlopes between archive footage of Sacramento, New York, Malibu and a distinctly Burnsian pan across old photos, often framed with thick white scrapbook paper. When a new literary work of Didion’s – themselves the chapters of this narrative – arrives, it is framed on a bookshelf cluttered with likeminded work, which in turn seems to blend into the background of Didion’s Upper West Side apartment. This is film as the family scrapbook.

Not surprisingly there are awkward moments, ones that remind us this is something of a vanity project for Dunne, such as when director and subject sit together and rehearse remembrance of their first meeting. The film feels too long because it is burdened with the upending of Didion’s life; in recent years she has lost both her husband and daughter. To save these as a reveal, however, was an awkward step which reduces such a tragedy to simple pain, whereas Didion herself has made something beautiful out of it – a late-in-life career centered around grief and self-redemption, in her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. But ultimately, I felt indebted to Dunne for preserving this legacy, and reintroducing one of the most important American voices to the Netflix generation (where the film with begin streaming soon). Given Dunne’s lifelong familiarity with his subject, the film remains remarkable in this way: he is successfully able to leave enough of his aunt Joan’s character out to make us want to pick up her books after watching. Time and again, Joan Didion is able to convey herself only through writing, and that enigma follows us throughout. It’s a feeling she herself acknowledges at the close of the film, when she states “I write to remind myself who I am.”

More and more, this is the reason I find I write as well. I’m indebted to Joan Didion not just as a young journalist, but as an American. From the chaos of the late twentieth century, she was able to craft a voice and construct a narrative that has affected the way we perceive a range of subjects. Hers was the lens with which Americans viewed their buzzing disorder, whether it be the hippie movement, the Bush era, and especially the Goliath of New York City.

Through her eyes, I can capture the essence of where I live, a place so crowded and preternaturally busy, it’s hard enough to keep one’s head above water, much less seek perspective. It seems that voices like hers don’t exist anymore, in their breadth of subjects or depth of feeling. And that’s coming from someone who spent their afternoon in a dark room, crowded by critics.

Nolan Kelly writes on film He currently lives in Brooklyn

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