The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.
Documentaries often get personal with their subjects, sometimes in ways that are essential to the powerful filmmaking on display. But what does it look like when family, so often the subject, mingles with the forces behind the camera?
Two new documentary films, “Arthur Miller: Writer” and “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” position their eponymous 20th century literary figures beneath their progeny’s gazes. Plenty ambitious, often neutral, and never too critical, these filmmakers seek a delicate, ethical balance between titillating an audience with the private life behind a public persona and executing a squeaky-clean legacy. Writer and director Rebecca Miller is tasked with her father Arthur, the man who used theater to confront the fallacies of the postwar era; actor and director Griffin Dunne tackles his aunt, Joan Didion, who rejuvenated the modern essay and offered readers alternative ways of navigating grief.
“Arthur Miller: Writer” begins with a formal montage of its subject’s accomplishments, shifting to grainy, intimate footage of Miller’s final decades in interview, the bulk of which was filmed before and during the younger Miller’s own pursuit of a screenwriting and directorial career.
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Those familiar with Rebecca Miller’s previous features (“Personal Velocity,” “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” “Maggie’s Plan”) will take pleasure in finding possible seeds of inspiration for her female characters — fiercely clever and negotiating with the shadow of some esteemed man or another — within the Millers’ own biography. As her footage becomes voiceover for other archival material, we see that the Millers share a closeness, one that occurs so rarely (particularly between fathers and daughters). The playwright opens up about the arc of his career, from finding his way from fiction at the University of Michigan to theater in New York City, and from there to the House Un-American Activities Committee and a frustrating slump when his plays turned unpalatable to audiences hellbent on countercultural innovations. Miller’s triumvirate of marriages are freely explored: editor Mary Slattery, actor Marilyn Monroe, and the late photographer Inge Morath (who is the also director’s mother and worthy of her own documentary) served varied, background roles to the writer.
While an aging Miller waffles over whether his relationship with Monroe began as an affair, the audience is permitted breathing room to judge him accordingly, perhaps going so far as citing Don Corleone’s proclamation about “real men.” The movie, despite being wonderfully unpolished, is not without its familial blind spots. Some are readily declared as being off-limits by the younger Miller; others, quietly ignored in the hope that they’ll be dismissed as decade-old tabloid fodder.
But as the subject of Dunne’s documentary once wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”: “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. […] We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is,” if nothing else, a portrait of a writer who has basked in both the relative anonymity of the analog and the carefully-curated adoration of the digital. Both Griffin Dunne and his aunt are image-conscious.
Witnessing an 80 year-old Didion — careful in her choice of words, if not slack — in contemporary interviews and b-roll, is a startling and much-needed departure from the Céline ad and infamous photo of Didion in a Stingray that have been virtually shared into ubiquity. In lieu of Miller’s home movies, her father puttering with woodwork tools as he chats about his writing process, we have high-definition. Griffin’s portrait of his aunt is no less of a carefully crafted image than those earlier photos, but at least we have the luxury of Didion in motion: through the streets of New York in winter boots, through a rant about people judging her weight, through a mausoleum, through bi-coastal existence, and through her 15 books and six screenplays.
Particular attention is given to the author’s past 15 years, most notably the back-to-back deaths of Didion’s partner in life and art, John Dunne, their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, and the two acclaimed works of nonfiction that she penned in response: “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights.”
The movie is most courageous when exploring Didion’s relationship to Dunne, which Didion frankly acknowledges as being more practical and intellectual than romantic. Similarly, the film is its most tentative when exploring that same interpersonal relationship, and the moments when separation seemed an inevitability, or Dunne’s drinking and anger veered into abusive territory. Because of his importance to Didion, John Dunne becomes frustratingly inextricable from not only Didion’s biography, but her bibliography. Griffin Dunne, when interviewing his aunt, isn’t inclined to push. He employs a similar discipline when deciding what to omit.
It is surprising, for example, that his sister Dominique Dunne’s murder was not extensively mentioned to allude to a curse on the Dunnes; all of Didion’s greatest pleasures, successes, and terrors seem to have originated from her connection to the family. The extended depiction of Didion and Dunne’s years together in California in the 1970s, intended to highlight the delightful dangers of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll era, comes across as gauche nostalgia in the current moment. Paradoxically, it is the film’s breathers from family that give the author’s work the credit it’s due. While “Joan Didion” deploys a small arsenal of esteemed literary critics, writers, and publishers to pontificate on the cultural significance of her work, it’s an eager outsider, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, who gives her work context by stating the obvious: It’s something any Didion fan would tell you, but nevertheless a point that her family members risk overlooking: “When I first read her, I felt like I was reading what I was waiting to be written.