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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Joan Didion: Writing for America

As a young artist, there is an impulse to emulate the greats. The painter looks to Picasso, the director looks to Kubrick, and the writer (at the least this one) looks to Joan Didion.

Recently, Netflix premiered an original documentary chronicling Didion’s life directed by Griffin Dunne, Didion’s brother-in-law, titled “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.” Although Didion wrote many fiction novels, she is best remembered for her nonfiction contributions, more specifically her personal essays and memoirs.

Since Didion’s work is so personal, the documentary feels like an extension of her writing: a kind of video epilogue to her body of work. Excerpts of her writing are used to set scenes and help transition the narrative of her life on screen.

The film begins when Didion received her first Big 5 tablet from her mother who advised Didion to “stop whining and learn to amuse [herself] by writing down [her] thoughts.” This she did. By her senior year at the University of California Berkeley, Didion had refined her skill so much that she was able to win a contest at Vogue Magazine to become a contributing writer. At Vogue, she met her husband John Dunne, a fellow writer. The couple would eventually move out of New York and start a family in Didion’s native southern California.

This chapter of Didion’s is the focus of much of her writing. The essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” written in 1967, showcases Didion’s ability to write as the objective onlooker. In the essay, she covers what she saw in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and her interactions with Bay Area “hippies.”

At the time of its publication, the opinion of the hippies was divided across the nation. The more conservative of citizens said that hippies were lazy stoners while the more liberal crowds had a romantic view. They saw them as free spirits practicing free love in their own little urban utopia. Didion reserves judgment and simply writes what she sees. She humanizes the homeless youth who came to Haight-Ashbury to chase the dream and only stopped because they’d gone as far west as they could go. But Didion also dives into the darker aspects of this crowd, showing the drug and child abusers who were very present and very much a part of the scene.

In the documentary, Didion is asked what it was like to be a journalist and see a five year old tripping on LSD. After a moment of expressive arm gestures, signifying an emotion beyond words, Didion finally settles on, “Let me tell you: it was gold.”

Later, in 1971, Didion published a collection of essays titled “The White Album.” I first encountered this work in an “Intro to Creative Nonfiction” class and it almost immediately became one of my favorite works of literature. The titular essay chronicles a period in Didion’s life between 1966 and 1971 when she was living on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood surrounded by music types and therapy groups. She writes without a linear narrative, jumping from the time she sat in on The Doors recording an album, to the morning after the Manson murders, to her interview with Black Panther martyr Huey Newton. She incorporates packing lists she made to enable quick travel, courtroom transcripts, and doctor’s diagnoses. With these mundane elements of true life, the effect is similar to looking at a Hopper painting.

Today, Didion is 82 years old. She is still being photographed by Vogue in her iconic large framed dark sunglasses and sleek black clothes. In 2005, Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” about the death of her husband. In 2009, she received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. In 2013, Didion was honored by President Barack Obama with one of the National Medals of Arts and Humanities.

With this new Netflix documentary, younger audiences will hopefully get more exposure to Didion’s work and she will rightfully go down in American history as a mark of national pride.