5 Documentaries About Writers

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Truth is stranger than fiction and writers are the oddest of the bunch, or so they say. Since there’s a serious lack of documentaries out there about intrepid book bloggers (I happily offer myself up as subject matter to any filmmakers out there looking for the next indie hit), there are more than a few about writers out there to keep you going, so I’ve limited myself to 5. Some are fascinating, others not so much.

Crumb: R. Crumb is an interesting individual, to say the least, and that’s before you even look at his distinctive underground comics, including the now infamous Fritz The Cat. Terry Zwigoff the director had unprecedented access to Crumb’s life and his numerous obsessions as well as that of his equally colourful family, and the entire experience is as exhilarating as it is uncomfortable. A rumour spread for many years that the only reason Crumb agreed to make the film was because Zwigoff threatened to shoot himself, which seems only fitting given how the film focuses on themes of alienation and what I can only refer to as creative madness.

Salinger: The newest film on the list also has the (dis)honour of being the most critically slammed documentary out of the bunch. Tackling a famous recluse who lived the majority of his life out of the public eye was always going to be a tough sell, but Shane Salerno’s effort offers little new insights and presents well-trodden details with little tact or artistic flair. The entire affair makes Channel 5 true life tales seem subtle by comparison. It’s hard to believe that this plodding piece took Salerno so many years to make. The director’s name also appears on such illustrious creative efforts as Aliens Vs. Predators: Requiem and Armageddon, which explains a lot.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life: While the queen of objectivism divides opinion (to say the least), it’s hard to deny that her life was utterly fascinating. While she was writing doorstoppers of thinly veiled political screeds that line the shelves of college libertarians and conservative politicians, she was declaring herself to be “the most creative thinker alive”, giving regular talks across the country and engaging in a totally objectivist and logical affair with a much younger disciple of her work. While certain elements of her life are glossed over and the entire film is hardly a balanced affair, it’s a pretty intriguing and straightforward telling of her life that benefits from use of archival footage of Rand herself. It’s been criticised for being plodding, overlong, devoid of nuance and being too afraid to tackle the real complexities of its subject matter’s personality, but that’s basically Rand’s literature in a nutshell so it’s oddly fitting.

Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson: Hunter S. Thompson was the kind of writer who inspired rapturous dedication and essentially invented a new sub-genre of journalism with his immersive and anarchic rejection of the traditional norms, known as Gonzo, pioneered with his most infamous work Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. The documentary of his life, made by Oscar winner and my favourite documentarian Alex Gibney, works so well because it evokes the time period so accurately while drawing comparisons with the contemporary situation that never feel forced. Archival footage of Thompson himself perfectly demonstrates his inimitable force of personality while numerous talking heads, ranging from ally to fan to foe, share their varying thoughts to the dulcet narrative tones of Johnny Depp.

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak: Sendak, the creator of everyone’s childhood with Where The Wild Things Are, is delightfully cantankerous and witty in this documentary directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze, the latter of whom made his most famous book into a painfully underrated film. He’s a natural presence in front of the camera and often brutally honest about his family, career, sexuality, the controversies caused by his work and the debates over what is and isn’t suitable for young children. It’s not a long film and plays out more like a conversation than anything more stylistically complex, but it’s no less effecting for it.

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