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Top 5 documentaries about American writers of the twentieth century

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Some would say that the writers of this list suffer from mental illness. However, their devoted readers might say that they are more sane than the rest of us. They’ve led unique lives that followed a unique way of viewing the world. Through their writing they shared that view with the public, in some cases clashing with society. Yet they all built up a strong following based on the strength of their ideas and their will.

Each writer is uniquely American. Though they are all popular the world over, their stories could only have happened in a place where the culture of rebellion and the culture of conservatives are constantly at odds like the USA. Most writers are introverts, people who are soft spoken and are more concerned with the inner world of the mind. However, do not mistake introversion for passivity or fear of confrontation. Though most of these men were seldom loud in manner, they were often loud with their ideas. They led wild full lives that are almost mythical in nature and were anything but ordinary.

These five films are great examples of what biographical documentaries should be. They do not blindside the viewer with narrative and instead let the stories develop naturally. They allow these incredible lives to speak for themselves.

Phillip K. Dick - The Penultimate Truth
Phillip K. Dick - The Penultimate Truth Amazon

Phillip K. Dick - The Penultimate Truth

You may be familiar with the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick from the many movies based on his novels. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report are just a few examples. In this biographical documentary the life of Dick is presented like an investigation. The Penultimate Truth keeps cutting back to ambiguous investigators looking through files on his life, as the people that knew the writer tell of their experiences.
One of the main themes of Dick’s writing was the uncertainty of reality. He seems to be driven by uncovering some kind of worldly truth that is hidden from all of us. It was a search that when combined with an amphetamine addiction eventually drove him mad. He suffered from anxiety attacks, paranoia, and had several failed suicide attempts. One of the things that makes this film great is that most of the interviews are with people that knew him well. Dick was married five times, and his many former wives are among the film’s cast.

Charles Bukowski - Born Into This
Charles Bukowski - Born Into This amazon

Charles Bukowski - Born Into This

Chiseled into the gravestone of Henry Charles Bukowski are the words, “Don’t Try.” This may seem strange for the one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century. Bukowski did not achieve success as a writer until late in his life. His poems and stories reflect the life of ordinary Americans. He worked at and wrote about a variety of blue collar jobs that he despised. It was his experiences with the mundane that made him so relatable to readers. 
Bukowski had an abusive childhood and was later kept out of World War II on the recommendation of a military psychiatrist. He was known for his constant drinking, smoking, womanizing, and distaste for authority. This film features interviews with several of Bukowski’s close friends as well as fans like Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Harry Dean Stanton, and Bono.

William S. Burroughs - A Man Within
William S. Burroughs - A Man Within amazon

William S. Burroughs - A Man Within

When you see photos of the stark faced William S. Burroughs it is difficult to believe it’s the same man that wrote some of the most disturbing sentences that have ever been put on paper. He shared the lust for life of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, and when he met the two in New York City in the 1950’s he was older and more successful. Together they made up the literary movement of the beat generation, and Burroughs was their Godfather. He took rebellion to it’s most extreme at a time when any kind of dissent was generally frowned upon. 
This film features lots of footage of Burroughs himself, and watching him speak is a truly shocking experience. To quote John Waters, one of the films commentators, “He was famous for things you’re supposed to hide. He was gay. He was a junkie. He shot his wife. He wrote poetry about a*holes and heroine.”

Salinger amazon


J.D. Salinger is most known for one book, The Catcher in the Rye. The book went on to sell 65 million copies. It is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed pieces of American literature ever written. It expertly captures the spirit of angst and alienation and garnered the writer legions of devoted fans. Salinger hated his fame though, and became a recluse. He stopped publishing in 1965 and went into hiding.
This documentary uncovers footage of an obsessed fan that tracks Salinger down at his home. We hear from many of his friends and ex-lovers, about his experiences in World War II, and his early struggles as a writer. Salinger died in 2010, and although he stopped publishing his work, he didn’t stop writing. While he lived he agreed to release his later work posthumously and it will be published gradually starting in 2015.

Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson amazon

Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Nobody captures the American spirit quite like Hunter S. Thompson. He is the inventor of Gonzo journalism, where a reporter places himself into the story with out objectivity. In one of his first books he details his travels with the notorious biker gang the Hell’s Angels. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas he writes all about his over the top experiences with different types of drugs. He was a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, a frequent guest on The Late Show with David Letterman and has been portrayed in numerous films including Where the Buffalo Roam, The Rum Diaries, and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The film Gonzo, directed by academy award winning director Alex Gibney features a cast that is as diverse as Johnny Depp, Jimmy Carter, and Muhammed Ali. It is a must see journal of the late twentieth century. See a trailer here.