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Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: A Masterpiece from 1968 That Could Have Been Written Today

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“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Over and over, Joan Didion has emerged as an enchantress of nuance — a writer of deep and dimensional wisdom on such undying human issues as self-respect, grief, and the passage of time. Didion has a particular penchant for unraveling issues of social friction and discomfort to reveal that they are merely symptoms, rather than causes, of deeper societal pathologies.

Take Hollywood’s diversity problem, of which the world becomes palpably aware every year as the Academy Awards roll around. (Awards are, after all, a vehicle for rewarding the echelons of a system’s values, and the paucity of people of color among nominees and winners speaks volumes about how much that system values diversity — something that renders hardly surprising a recent Los Angeles Times survey, which found that the Oscar-dispensing academy is primarily male and 94% white.) Nearly half a century before today’s crescendoing public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue with unparalleled intellectual elegance.

In an essay titled “Good Citizens,” written between 1968 and 1970 and found in the altogether indispensable The White Album (public library) — which also gave us Didion on driving as a transcendent experience — she turns her perceptive and prescient gaze to Hollywood’s diversity problem and the vacant pretensions that both beget and obscure it.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Didion writes:

Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.

And because this is Didion — a writer of extraordinary subtlety and piercing precision, who often tells half the story in the telling itself — she paints a backdrop of chronic superficiality as she builds up to the overt point:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” someone said to me at dinner not long ago, and before we had finished our fraises des bois he had advised me as well that “no man is an island.” As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. “What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,” I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.

She recounts one event particularly painful to watch — a staged debate between the writer William Styron and the actor Ossie Davis. Davis had asserted that Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the black protagonist falls in love with a white woman, had encouraged racism. With her characteristic clarity bordering on wryness, Didion notes: “It was Mr. Styron’s contention that it had not.” She sums up the evening with one famous spectator’s response:

James Baldwin sat between them, his eyes closed and his head thrown back in understandable but rather theatrical agony.

Didion reflects on what that particular event revealed — and still reveals — about Hollywood’s general vacancy of any real commitment to social justice:

[The evening’s] curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.

The unwelcome presence of doubt is, of course, the fatal diagnosis of all systems that warp reality and flatten its complexities by leaving no room for nuance — systems like the Hollywood of that era, which has hardly changed in ours, and the mainstream media of today, who tend to depict the world by the same “dramatic convention” of clickbait and sensationalism adding nothing to the actual conquest of meaning.

Reflecting on Hollywood’s “vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals,” Didion recounts the particular pretensions she observed at a national convention of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycees — a leadership and civic engagement training organization for young people — held at LA’s Miramar Hotel:

In any imaginative sense Santa Monica seemed an eccentric place for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce to be holding a national congress, but there they were, a thousand delegates and wives, gathered in the Miramar Hotel for a relentless succession of keynote banquets and award luncheons and prayer breakfasts and outstanding-young-men forums… I was watching the pretty young wife of one delegate pick sullenly at her lunch. “Let someone else eat this slop,” she said suddenly, her voice cutting through not only the high generalities of the occasion but The New Generation’s George M. Cohan medley as well.

It bears noting that this took place a decade and a half before the Jaycees began accepting women as members, so any female presence at the convention was invariably allotted to such pretty young wives — including this one, whom Didion proceeded to see “sobbing into a pink napkin.”

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

But what makes Didion’s essay doubly poignant is the way in which she gets at — obliquely, unambiguously — how Hollywood’s chronic biases permeate the rest of society. Having gone to the Jaycees national convention “in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America,'” she found instead a mirroring of Hollywood’s superficial and performative approaches to social justice issues. Didion writes:

At first I thought I had walked out of the rain and into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.

Nearly half a century later, one can’t help but feel pulled into the very same time warp — Didion could have written this today:

They knew that this was a brave new world and [the Jaycees] said so. It was time to “put brotherhood into action,” to “open our neighborhoods to those of all colors.” It was time to “turn attention to the cities,” to think about youth centers and clinics and the example set by a black policeman-preacher in Philadelphia who was organizing a decency rally patterned after Miami’s. It was time to “decry apathy.”

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time enough for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and the steam rise off the heated pool outside and listening to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest and whether the “solution” might not lie in on-campus Jaycee groups. I thought about this astonishing notion for a long time. It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.

Reading Didion’s astute observations many decades later, at a time when so many of us feel just as “personally betrayed by recent history,” reaffirms the The White Album as absolutely essential reading for modern life — not merely because its title is all the more uncomfortably perfect in light of this particular essay, but because every single essay in it directs the same unflinching perceptiveness at some timeless and timely aspect of our world.

Complement it with Didion’s reading list of all-time favorite books and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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11 FEBRUARY, 2015

Joan Didion’s Favorite Recipes

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Chicken hash for Patti Smith, parsley salad for forty guests, and other edible fragments of a life that feminized the literary myth.

I have a voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks, particularly ones at the intersection of cuisine and literature — from vintage treasures like The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook and Found Meals of the Lost Generation to loving homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and those real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to creative twists like Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction. How irresistible, then, to devour the recipes and menus that Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers of our time, holds most dear. “Part of Didion’s innovation was to feminize the literary myth,” Nathan Heller wrote in his beautiful essay on the writer’s living legacy — and her relationship with cuisine was an epicenter of that revolution.

As a supporter of the Didion documentary, I was treated to a copy of the author’s personal cookbook — a florilegium of sorts, assembling handwritten recipes, culinary clippings from various magazines and books, and menus of meals she served while entertaining at her home, to guests like Patti Smith (chicken hash with roasted yellow peppers and baguettes) and Richard Roth (baked ham with mustard and Alice Waters’s coleslaw).

Tucked into the recipes and menus are subtle clues to Didion’s life and social circle — sometimes amusing (parsley salad for 35 to 40?), sometimes poignant (fewer and fewer guests listed on the menus as the years roll by), always deeply human (cross-outs, inconsistent punctuation).

Recipes, by their very nature, are also strangely reflective of Didion’s stylistic signature as a writer — a directness at once unembellished and undry.

Here are a few favorites.

BORSCHT
(for 6)

2 lbs lean stew beef.

brown + put in stewpot w/ 1 c bouillon, 2 qt water, clove, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic, 1 chopped onion.

Simmer 1 hr.

Add:

4.5 peeled + grated beets,
1 cut-up potato (large)
3/4 head shredded cabbage.
Thyme.
Juice a couple of beets. (Brown Sugar)
Dill weed.
Simmer another hour.
Serve with bowl of sour cream.

ARTICHOKES AU GRATIN
(Serves 8)

2 (9 oz.) pkgs. frozen artichoke hearts
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 cup butter
dash white pepper
1 t. onion salt
1/2 t. prepared mustard
3/4 t. salt
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup reserved artichoke liquid
1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 egg slightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 T. dry bread crumbs
Paprika

Heat oven to 450 F.
Cook artichokes according to pkg. directions adding lemon juice to water. Drain, reserving 1/2cup liquid. Place artichokes in a single layer in a 9-inch shallow casserole.

Sauce: melt butter, add spices and flower, stir until smooth. Gradually add artichoke liquid and milk. Cook, stirring, until thick. Remove from heat, add egg and half of cheese. Blend. Pour over artichokes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, bread crumbs and paprika.

Bake for 15 minutes.

RISOTTO

Sauté 1 onion, chopped, in 2 T olive oil, until soft.

Add 1 c rice, stir to coat, add 1/3 c white wine, let evaporate — add, bit by bit, 5 cups broth (1 can beef broth plus water to 5c).

DEVILED CRAB

For 1 pound of crabmeat:

Melt 4 T butter, sauté 1/4 tp 1/2 cup chopped celery and 3 chopped scallions. Stir in 1/2 t dry mustard, 1 T flour, cayenne and salt. Add 1 container heavy cream, thicken a bit, stir in crabmeat.

Pour into baking dish, finish with dried bread crumbs, Parmesan, and paprika. In oven 15 minutes, finish under broiler until brown.

PESTO

For a pound of pasta,

a cup and a half (about one ounce) of basil leaves, loosely packed
a handful of parsley leaves
1/8 ¼ cup pine nuts
several garlic cloves
a teaspoon of red pepper flakes
a quarter ½ cup olive oil

Blend together, gradually adding oil and then mixing in pepper flakes.

VODKA SAUCE
(for pound of pasta)

1 stick butter, 1 t red pepper flakes, 1 c vodka, 1 8-oz can tomato sauce, 1 tomato, 1 c heavy cream

CRÈME CARAMEL
(For 12)

  1. Melt 1 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in saucepan + cook until golden. Line 12 cups with this caramelized sugar + let it set.
  2. Scald 4 cups milk with long piece of vanilla bean. Meanwhile, beat together 6 eggs, 4 additional egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar.
  3. Remove vanilla bean + trickle hot milk into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture with care over caramel in cups.
  4. Place cups in pan of hot water + into 350° oven for 20-25 min, until point of knife comes out of center clean. (water must not boil.) Chill + unmold.

SHORTCAKE

2 1/2 cups Bisquick
3 T sugar
3 T melted butter
1/2 cup milk

Knead 8-10 times —
Roll 1/2 in thick — cut — ungreased pan — 10 min at 425°.

PARSLEY SALAD
(35–40)

8 bunches Italian parsley
Blend 16 T olive oil with one head parsley until smooth
Blend in 4 T balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
When ready to serve place parsley in 1 1/3 C grated parmesan in bowl, toss with dressing

Complement with a reading list of Didion’s all-time favorite books and her sublime meditations on grief and self-respect, then treat yourself to The Modern Art Cookbook, Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic gastronomy, Patti Smith’s lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and a few favorite recipes of favorite poets.

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16 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendence

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“Participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”

Many years ago, an imaginative campaign for Mini Cooper reframed driving, something drudgerous, as motoring, something joyful. It became an instant success and received every major industry award, including a Cannes Lion. The young creative director who dreamed it up — Steve O’Connell, an old friend with whose encouragement Brain Pickings was born back in the day, and a brilliant creative mind always looking for the deeper longings beneath human behavior — was hailed as a rising star and went on to start a new kind of creative agency. The genius of his idea was that it tapped into a fundamental yearning to bring more mindfulness and presence to the ordinary activities of our daily lives — the same impulse that Thoreau tickled when he reframed the ordinary activity of walking as the art of sauntering.

But the original champion of driving as more-than-driving, as an experience more transcendent than simply propelling a vehicle over pavement and more present than mindlessly getting from point A to point B, is none other than Joan Didion — she of world-reorienting wisdom on self-respect, grief, and the value of keeping a notebook.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

In an essay about California’s freeway system in her altogether sublime 1979 collection The White Album (public library), Didion writes:

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident.

Drawing from 'Mr. Bliss,' the little-known children's book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids. Click image for more.

Illustrating the idea that kindred minds often arrive at the same conclusions about certain aspects of the human experience, Didion quotes from the 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, a work of enduring genius:

The freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.

The White Album remains one of the best essay collections ever published. Complement it with Didion’s all-time favorite books, then revisit Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful reading from Didion’s memoir of mourning.

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06 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion’s Favorite Books of All Time, in a Handwritten Reading List

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A living anatomy of influences, from Brontë to Baldwin.

Having long lamented the dearth of reading lists by female cultural icons — amid a wealth of excellent but chromosomally skewed ones by such luminaries as Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — I set out to find a worthy counterpoint. And what worthier addition than Joan Didion, one of the most singular and influential writers of our time, whose reflections on self-respect and grief are nothing short of life-changing?

Thanks to directors Susanne Rostock and Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, who are making a documentary about her, I was delighted to obtain a list of the beloved author’s all-time favorite books. Given her strong convictions about the value of keeping a notebook, it’s at once utterly unsurprising and utterly delightful that the reading list is penned in her own hand, on a page of her notebook:

  1. A Farewell to Arms (public library) by Ernest Hemingway
  2. Victory (public library) by Joseph Conrad
  3. Guerrillas (public library) by V.S. Naipaul
  4. Down and Out in Paris and London (public library) by George Orwell
  5. Wonderland (public library) by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. Wuthering Heights (public library) by Emily Brontë
  7. The Good Soldier (public library) by Ford Madox Ford
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (public library) by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  9. Crime and Punishment (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  10. Appointment in Samarra (public library) by John O’Hara
  11. The Executioner’s Song (public library) by Norman Mailer
  12. The Novels of Henry James (public library): Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw
  13. Speedboat (public library) by Renata Adler
  14. Go Tell It on the Mountain (public library) by James Baldwin
  15. Notes of a Native Son (public library) by James Baldwin
  16. The Berlin Stories (public library) by Christopher Isherwood
  17. Collected Poems (public library) by Robert Lowell
  18. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden
  19. The Collected Poems (public library) by Wallace Stevens

Complement with Didion on telling stories, why she writes, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and Vanessa Redgrave’s gorgeous reading from the author’s memoir, then revisit the greatest books of all time, as voted by 125 famous contemporary authors.

Here is a delectable taste of the Didion documentary:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.