If I had discovered Joan Didion properly, I would have first read her books in a New York City apartment, alone with my gin and my despair, as yellow silk curtains fluttered listlessly in the breeze. Or possibly on a beach in Malibu, flowers in my hair and woe in my heart. Instead I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem one Saturday morning in the doctor’s office because I had broken a finger and the book was light enough to hold with one hand. Despite the un-Didion atmosphere, I was hooked.
Although she has written five novels, two memoirs, and several works of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the book that made her famous. Ranging from reporting to criticism to memoir, her first essay collection introduces readers to Didion’s perfectly composed sentences and sharp eye for detail—and to Didion herself. “Since I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel,” she wrote. Critics complain that Didion imposes her feelings onto stories, observing her emotions as closely as she observes the hippies of San Francisco. But for Didion, that’s the impulse to write down anything: “Remember what it was to be me.”
Didion has always been the master storyteller in control of her narrative (critics would say in control of her brand). This creates a problem for the movie director who proposes to turn the camera eye back onto Didion. Her biographer Tracy Daugherty observes that in interviews Didion will offer the same “calculated confessions” even as she writes, “I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” This is Didion’s double-edged allure; she’s at once personal and aloof. Any documentary about her must reckon with this challenge: How much can a movie add to the story if Didion has already told us all she thinks we need to know?