Documentaries about artists and other well-known individuals can be divided into three general categories:
1) Talking head docs (people talking about a specific person).
2) Documentaries featuring the subject (interviews, etc.)
3) Synthesis of #1 & 2.
The documetaries that fall under the first category I’d say are not worth watching at all. I have sat and watched many of these, and in the end learned nothing of value from them (with the exception of Ken Burns’ docs). What it usually amounts to is a long procession of friends, admirers, and hangers-on talking about how great the person in question was. Odds are, if you’re watching the documentary, you already feel the individual is great, or else why watch it? Oftentimes the special features of DVDs feature boring, pointless docs like these, where the actors and crew gush about each other, but don’t tell you much about how the film was made.
The documentaries in the 2nd and 3rd category are worth watching. In those, you get first-hand accounts of what the person’s life was like. Moreover, you can hear the person’s voice, see their idiosyncracies, and get an idea of what their personality is. I highly enjoy these types of docs, especially when they are about writers. Here’s a list of documentaries that feature the writers themselves, and that I’d say are worth your time if you’re into literature or especially if you’re an up-and-coming writer in search of inspirations.
The following docs I watched through Netflix.
Bill Moyers, On Faith & Reason: Salman Rushdie.
On Faith and Reason is a short documentary series hosted by noteworthy interviewer Bill Moyers (whom you might recognize from his popular series with Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth). Each episode features Moyers interviewing renowned artists’ and intellectuals about their views on faith, or in some cases, faithlessness. The only one I’ve watched so far featured Salman Rushdie. This is particularly interesting because Rushdie, a self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool atheist,” had religious extremism dramatically affect his life after the fatwa was declared against him (for more on that, read my post Keep on Reading Rushdie in The Free World). This features a long, fascinating interview with Rushdie followed by a taping of Rushdie reading his infamous book The Satanic Verses aloud in front of a large crowd.
This doc is available for streaming on Netflix.
Bill Moyers, The World of Writers: Joseph Heller
It was a joy to watch this one. Joseph Heller has been one of my favorite writers since high-school. Here, he’s wonderfully erudite, quoting Plato off the top of his head and talking about JFK, as well as sharing some of his thoughts on his most famous work Catch-22 (for more on Heller’s career, read my post With Great Artists, Their Greatest Detractors are Themselves). This is again hosted by Bill Moyers and is available for streaming through Netflix.
Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
Even if you haven’t heard of the sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, I’d recommend watching this documentary. Harlan Ellison is a real character. He’s brash, outspoken, and unpredictable. Some of the things he says are hilarious. This also features some talking head footage, but a lot of the people interviewed are interesting in their own right. Neil Gaiman appears several times. This is available for streaming through Netlfix.
Ray Bradbury: An American Icon
This one’s mainly recommended to those who love Ray Bradbury as much as I do. The documentary is pieced together, featuring old interview footage mixed in with photos from different points in Ray’s past. Ray is great in interviews. He’s not glib or self-absorbed. He doesn’t put up walls around himself. He’s very candid, and I found this short doc helped develop my own self-esteem as a writer. This is available on disc through Netflix.
Great Writers: Anthony Burgess
This one’s a bit like the last one mentioned. It wasn’t made until after Burgess died. It features clips from filmed interviews he gave throughout his career. Again, I’d recommend this just for his interviews. There’s a lot of talking heads in this one, and the strange part is, the documentarians didn’t find that many friends of Burgess or scholars of his work to give commentary. Instead, one of the people interviewed the most is just a fan of his books who lives in France. If you don’t want to rent this (which is completely understandable), look up Anthony Burgess’ interviews on Youtube. Great Writers: Anthony Burgess is available on disc through Netflix.
Great Writers: Salman Rushdie
This one’s by the same series that put out the Burgess doc, but this one’s worlds better as they actually took the time to interview Salman Rushdie, and the interview makes up a bulk of the 45 minute running time. I’d recommend Rushdie’s interview with Moyers first, but if you watch that and feel you need more Rushdie, check out this doc. Great Writers: Salman Rushdie is available through Netflix on disc.
Okay, those are all of the documentaries I can think of that were good. Hope the list was helpful.
Once again, I’d like to remind everyone to check out my book The Madness of Art Short Stories, available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
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