October 29, 2014

Play it if it pays: Joan Didion documentary crowdfunded on Kickstarter


From We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live

From We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live

Kickstarter is a powerful website, and its awesome crowdfunding power has, on occasion, been deployed toward some pretty odd ends. But for every Missy Elliott-themed tracksuit and Ron Paul-themed video game (Ron Paul: Road to REVOLution), a truly deserving work makes its way into the world. Such was the case last week, when We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, a documentary about the writer Joan Didion, reached its $80,000 goal in just twenty-four hours.

The documentary is being co-directed by editor and director Susanne Rostock and actor, director, producer, and nephew-of-Didion Griffin Dunne. Dunne and Rostock have put together an excellent video for the project that doubles as a trailer for the film itself, and which articulates the film’s vision far better than I can:

Stories will incorporate extensive conversations with Didion, archival materials, and interviews with a wide variety of . . . well, people. Why such a vague descriptor? Because there’s really no specific category that could accommodate intimidating film producer Scott Rudin, intimidating book critic Michiko Kakutani, and intimidating singer-songwriter/plain old writer Patti Smith.

Articles about the film’s production surfaced soon after its Kickstarter page was posted, and some of these reports have taken note of the various inducements available to those who pledge at or above specific amounts. The MobyLives line on these inducements is unambiguous: there is nothing too tacky, silly, or over-the-top when it comes to subsidizing a documentary about one of our greatest living writers. Indeed, tackiness, silliness, and over-the-topness simply do not come into play.

The New Republic’s Esther Bridger does not agree:

For $35 you get a handwritten list of her 12 favorite books; for $50 you get a pdf copy of her recipe book (also in her own handwriting); for $2,500, two people will receive a pair of sunglasses from her “personal collection.” (“This is your opportunity to see the world as Joan,” we’re told!). Didion is one of the greatest living writers, but her legacy at times seems at risk of being subsumed by her lifestyle brand—thin, chic, Californian.

This is absolutely wrong. While there might be a handful of people more interested in Didion the brand than Didion the writer, the premise of this documentary is to bring an exceptional writer’s writing—and, crucially, the context that produced it and surrounded it—to as large an audience as possible. This audience likely won’t have heard about the sunglasses or the signed Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire; indeed, for many of its members, Stories will be the first introduction to Didion’s life and work. That Didion is willing to sign some paper and part with a couple of sunglasses surely has no bearing on the project.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is Didion herself, in The White Album, as she launches into her devastating attack on Bridger’s once-labelmate, the great film critic Stanley Kauffmann:

Some people who write about film seem so temperamentally at odds with what both Fellini and Truffaut have called the “circus” aspect of making film that there is flatly no question of their ever apprehending the social or emotional reality of the process. In this connection I think particularly of Kauffmann, whose idea of a nasty disclosure about the circus is to reveal that the aerialist is up there to get our attention.

New York’s Boris Kachka spoke to Dunne after the film reached its goal, and Dunne told him about his own experience with the “circus,” which he encountered as he tried to pitch the documentary. “People are always looking for a kind of sexy catch,” Dunne said, “or having it be something to do with a violent episode—something that kind of leaps off the page at you.” So in order to get a movie about  “one of the most celebrated American writers of her generation” (in President Barack Obama’s words),  Dunne and Rostock had to resort to resort to what Bridger called “undignified” behavior. I would call it something else: a worthy sacrifice.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.