3 stars (out of 4)
I read Charles Bukowski's 1978 novel "Women," about a 50-year-old man's many sexual encounters, in college, just so I could say I had. I hated it, but pretended to like it, and then later decided it was misogynistic because I heard kids in a cafe say it was.
And so it was with that strength of conviction that I walked into the screening for "Bukowski: Born Into This," John Dullaghan's raw and defining documentary about the man--and the myth.
Bukowski is most commonly thought of as a drunk and a womanizer, and Dullaghan includes plenty of footage to say that, yes sir, he sure was. But Bukowski never really possessed the swagger attributed to him. Dullaghan tells us--or rather, Bukowski tells us in interviews and home videos--that the legendary writer was regularly beaten by his father with a razor strap, and that as a teenager he suffered through a disfiguring case of acne vulgaris, which left him scarred, inside and out, for life.
As Bukowski explains to a reporter asking about his writing style, when you get knocked around "long enough and long enough and long enough, you have the tendency to say what you mean." Bukowski shunned poetry's traditional form (writing, "as the spirit wanes, the form appears") and instead wrote how he talked, with bile and profanity and sometimes uncomfortable honesty.
Bukowski's reputation grew incrementally, first with his contributions to small literary magazines, then with his indie newspaper column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," and in 1971, with the publication of his first novel, "Post Office," the story of a man who works for more than a decade for the Postal Service, just as Bukowski did.
Dullaghan set out to write a Bukowski biography, but with all the dynamic footage, his project morphed into a film. Good thing, because the printed page never could have done justice to the sight of Bukowski--gruff, dirty, drunk--at readings (with a fridge full of beer next to him on stage), lounging in his decrepit L.A. apartment, or brutally humiliating his wife Linda Lee in an interview.
Friends and business associates like publisher John Martin, who in 1966 founded Black Sparrow Press with Bukowski as his main author, provide context in the film and assure us that this beast-of-a-man, who is swearing and puffing and pontificating throughout, was really pretty harmless. Excerpts from Bukowski's poetry, often scrawled across the screen as the author recites, remind us of his exceptional talent and passion for the written word.
In 1987 Bukowski, now an underground hero and a pretty famous guy, went Hollywood, writing the screenplay for "Barfly," the cinematic story of his life, with Mickey Rourke as the writer. Bukowski was unhappy with Rourke's performance, but I imagine he would have been unhappy with any performance because it would have to be an act. For a man who prided himself on his uncensored reactions, Bukowski sure didn't make it easy for anyone to know him.
Bukowski wrote in his poem, the bluebird: "There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you. There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he's in there."
What Dullaghan's film ultimately and successfully asserts is that Bukowski, drowning himself in alcohol and ego, rarely let anyone see the real guy. He cultivated this image that the public, and some of his own words, had thrust upon him. And though this brought him fame and money and a place in literary history, it's sad.
"Bukowski: Born Into This"
Directed by John Dullaghan; edited by Victor Livingston; produced by Dullaghan. Featuring Charles Bukowski, Bono, Harry Dean Stanton, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Barbet Schroeder. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday, July 16. Running time: 1:53. No MPAA rating. (Profanity, sex and adult themes).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times