Words with Pictures: 18 Documentaries about Writers

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Most creative types are a documentarian’s dream. Musicians have hours of live concert footage, actors have dozens of movies in the can, and artists have lots of pretty pictures to film. But writers? Writers can be a real pain. Unless they’re Stan Lee, they’re generally not bringing a natural visual element to the table. Still, the filmmakers behind these documentaries managed to spin 40-minute or 240-minute yarns about wordsmiths from all types of genres. They probably deserve a book dedication for that, but for now, they’ll have to settle for a film credit.

1. Margaret Atwood: Once in August (1984)

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This National Film Board of Canada production can feel a bit like a wildlife documentary. It drops you into Margaret Atwood’s woodsy family vacation spot with filmmaker Michael Rubbo as your guide. Just like any decent wildlife expert, Rubbo provides frequent narration about his curious subject and even discusses how best to draw her out with his co-writer in between interviews. He never quite cracks Atwood, seemingly to her delight, but it’s interesting to see her in this time frame, still a year away from her most famous novel (The Handmaid’s Tale), a full 16 away from her Man Booker Prize (for The Blind Assassin), and nearly three decades away from being Twitter best friends with Rob Delaney.


2. Worn Out with Desire to Write (1985)

Unless you’re an out-and-out Francophile, you might be behind on your Marguerite Duras. This hour-long film is a good introduction. It begins in Vietnam, where Duras spent her childhood, and ends back in her cozy Parisian living room, with her discussing the ending of her (at the time) recent bestseller, The Lover.


3. The Ten-Year Lunch (1987)

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For some people, the Algonquin Round Table has an even more mythic status than the one in Camelot. The literary salon of writers like Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross and Robert Benchley met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel every day through the Roaring Twenties. This Oscar-winning look at the famed circle covers its forays into theater, feminism and free love, and even animates a few of the groups’ more famous quips. But by the end, it’s realized what the members did by 1930: this was just a bunch of brilliant people farting around, delaying their careers and responsibilities for as long as humanly possible.


4. The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1987)

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Buckle in, Bukowski fanatics, because this compilation of 50+ interviews with the author is a whopping four hours long. For the most part, filmmaker Barbet Schroeder decided to just set up a shot and let Bukowski go—and it results in some engrossing conversations. That said, a lot of it is uncomfortable. It takes Bukowski all of two minutes to casually reference rape, and you’ll see him abuse his wife in one especially horrifying scene. But Schroeder doesn’t sugarcoat his subject: he wants his audience to see these monstrous moments.


5. The Word, the Image, and the Gun (1991)

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Well, this is a weird one. It’s ostensibly about Don DeLillo’s “dangerous fiction,” but actually about the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy. Plus Don DeLillo, sort of. Judge for yourself.


6. Breakfast with Hunter (2003)

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You have to give Hunter S. Thompson one thing: he knows how to make an entrance. In the first few seconds of Breakfast with Hunter, the gonzo journalist pulls up to the curb waving a cigarette and a blow-up sex doll, which he promptly throws into the street. From there, it gets just as weird as you’d expect. This documentary isn’t interested in delving into HST’s childhood or personal life so much as it is in showcasing his grandstanding (about Nixon, DUI laws, film adaptations of his work) and bizarre whims (ambushing Jann Wenner with a stolen fire extinguisher is one of them). If you come expecting brunch action, you’ll be disappointed. But if you come hoping for some choice smoke detector impressions, you’ll be set.

7. Chris and Don (2007)

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Christopher Isherwood’s writing career can feel like a footnote in this look at his 34-year romance with Don Bachardy. But directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara were wise to focus on this important aspect of Isherwood’s life. While he left behind ample material in his diaries and home videos, Barchardy completes the picture with his candid retellings of their last days together and their first official encounter, dramatically reenacted with shadowy actors swilling wine glasses. The most creative touch comes in an animated motif of a young cat and old horse—the couple’s pet names for each other—which could play as cheesy or forced in less able hands. Here, though, their sweet closing shot feels earned. Bring tissues, because that cartoon cat will make you cry.


8. Trumbo (2007)

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This year just saw another film called Trumbo quietly sweep through theaters, but long before Bryan Cranston picked up a cigarette holder, Peter Askin was telling Dalton Trumbo’s story with this eponymous documentary. This Trumbo spends ample time showing the price the Hollywood Ten paid for their principles, but it also makes sure to highlight Trumbo’s gift for the written word through several dramatic readings of his letters. The one written to his bullied daughter’s school principal is the most devastating, but you’re going to walk away remembering Nathan Lane’s reading of a rather candid letter about masturbation … addressed to Trumbo’s son.


9. Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008)

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Yes, this is technically a documentary about a musician, but Patti Smith was never just a musician. The film pores over her poetry and admiration for poets like William Blake, when it isn’t busy artfully shooting her strumming in black and white. Steven Sebring’s approach can be too indulgent, but he makes small moments—such as Smith fussing with a small urn containing Robert Mapplethorpe’s ashes—matter.


10. Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)

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Early into Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Harlan Ellison’s friend and colleague Neil Gaiman says Harlan himself is a huge piece of performance art. And based on what happens over the ensuing 90 minutes, he’s probably right. Ellison gleefully recalls mailing a dead gopher to a publishing house and frequently stops the movie in its tracks to rant about some idiot who rubbed him the wrong way. (Fans will also adore his theatrical readings of his own work.) Even if it is all a show, it’s a damn entertaining one.


11. Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak (2009)

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As anyone who watched his classic interviews with Colbert knows, Maurice Sendak was a delightful lunatic. But Sendak was much more than that irascible old man always good for a scathing quote about ereaders. In Tell Them Anything You Want, Sendak is thoughtful, wistful, and frequently morose—he mentions death so much that Jonze includes a quick montage of soundbites about dying. In the end, though, (then) 80-year-old Sendak isn’t the star of this show. It’s his longtime audience, children. Jonze uses a formative story about young Maurice spying a Lindbergh baby headline to make the film’s central point: kids see more than you think, so you might as well tell them aynthing you want.


12. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)

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This could’ve been just another movie about the Beat movement, which Burroughs famously helped found. But mercifully, this movie doesn’t care about what Jack Keroauc may or may not have said to Burroughs one night when he was stoned. It desperately wants to understand the angry, odd, distant man behind Naked Lunch and (inadvertently) so many punk rock lyrics. A scowling drawing of Burroughs guides us through this documentary, which skillfully navigates the many noteworthy aspects of Burroughs life. Yes, it gets to the drugs, and yes, it gets to all the guns. But it’s most concerned with exploring Burroughs’ capacity to love and, against all odds, it gets an actual answer in the end.

13. And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)

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So much of Spalding Gray’s career is tied to his wry performance of the monologues he crafted over the years, but this Soderbergh film tries its best to understand his writing process. At one point, Gray is telling a story about his father explaining the birds and bees to him over golf—specifically noting a woman at work with a “turkey in the oven”—and the film then cuts to footage of Gray asking his dad if that was what he actually said or if he made that up. “Sometimes I don’t know if I’m fictionalizing or not,” he says. His father replies, “Sometimes I don’t know if you are, either.” But Soderbergh gives Gray complete license to embellish by relying solely on archival interviews, home videos, and monologue clips. It ends up feeling like a final Spalding Gray show, which is probably what the departed storyteller would’ve wanted.


14. José and Pilar (2010)

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José and Pilar follows José Saramago’s final years, so there’s naturally some sobering discussion of death and religion. Yet the focus is Saramago’s sweet relationship with his wife, Pilar del Río, who works tirelessly to continue his legacy. The best moments come when the couple are quietly working together in his library sorting fan letters (Saramago does not care for the Dalai Lama) or scheduling appearances. Seemingly the only time they argue is about politics, particularly the merits of Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton. Man, remember when the 2008 election seemed like a sideshow?


15. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself (2012)

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George Plimpton led an exciting life, but it’s hard to watch this documentary without pitying him. Scorned by his father and more serious writer friends, Plimpton was constantly on the defensive about his flashy storytelling career. You need only listen to the funny, lovely bucket list he left to his son, though, to recognize his true talents.


16. Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013)

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Though there are brief glimpses into Alice Walker’s character development, this is mainly a movie about her life. Which is a good thing, because she’s had an unbelievable one. Seated in front of a bunch of lilacs, Walker recounts her abortion as a teenager, defiance of the KKK, fluid sexuality, and political activism. Interesting guests like Gloria Steinhem and Quincy Jones filter in and out, but the most fascinating person in this movie is always Alice herself.


17. Salinger (2013)

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It’s funny to remember what a big deal Salinger was when it was first released. Coinciding with a book by director Shane Salerno, the movie was supposed to reveal sensational information on the reclusive author’s life and unpublished novels. Two years later, we still don’t have any of those novels, and the movie didn’t live up to its touted all-access Salinger pass. But if you’ve always wondered what Danny DeVito thought about the man, well, it’s got that that going for it.


18. Life Itself (2014)

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If you read Ebert’s autobiography or even that stunning Esquire profile, you already know much of the history here. Still, director Steve James dares you to look away as a voiceless yet chipper Ebert jokes with hospital visitors and digilently checks his blog from his hospital bed. Old newspaper pals fill you in on the early years, while Gene Siskel’s widow explains his acrimonious brotherhood with her late husband. (Seriously, the outtakes from their show are cattier than anything Regina George ever said.) Life Itself paints Ebert as a driven movie geek to the very end—and thanks to his widow Chaz’s gut-wrenching account of his passing, you’ll know exactly how it all ended.


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