Wednesday, May 12, 2010
After I watched “Barfly” last week, I was moved to add “Bukowski: Born Into This” to my Netflix queue. It arrived in yesterday’s mail and I watched it last night. Charles Bukowski is not an easy character to like - and his work (poetry or prose) is equally hit or miss for most people. But the 2004 John Dullaghan documentary is well worth the time (running just under 2 hours), regardless of your personal view of Bukowski. In fact, the decidedly upbeat take (there are no critics in this film) puts his helter-skelter life into a chronological span and makes Bukowski into an almost forgone creation of a horrible childhood and his beat early lives.
Charles Bukowski is difficult to put into a neat literary cubby hole (dive bar, seedy hotel, better choices). For a man of prodigious literary output, he never broke into the world of mainstream academia (or publishing, for that matter). The Bukowski of this film comes across as equal parts Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson. And, lurking in the background is Herbert Huncke - the proto beat. Huncke was a petty criminal, alcoholic, and junkie. He’s the guy, from whom Kerouac first heard the term “beat.”
Late in his life, and after repeated pleas from Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, Huncke started to write (albeit sporadically). He eventually penned his autobiography, “Guilty of Everything,” that cataloged his wayward escapades. Bukowski shares many parallels with Huncke (who died in 1996, two years after Bukowski, at 81). Bukoswki also followed in the footsteps of Henry Miller - who quit his job at Western Union to strike out as a writer. Miller’s penniless decade (the 1920s) produced his first novel, “Moloch, or, This Gentile World” (published posthumously) which chronicled his horrible years at Western Union.
To quit his dead end job at the post office, Bukowski was offered a stipend of $100 per month from his future publisher, John Martin. Shortly afterward, Black Sparrow Press (created just to publish Bukowski) released “Post Office,” Bukowski’s first novel - and a thinly disguised autobiographical piece of his years at slaving away at the mail sorting operations of the post office. It was John Martin’s unwavering faith in Bukowski that paved the way for him to become a full time writer - unencumbered by a day to day job!
Bukowski himself, in a fantastic piece, related how important it was for him to keep an “ember” of his writing alive deep inside of himself - regardless of the drudgery of any job he might be working to stay alive! That way, if he ever got published (and this was during a period where his mailbox was constantly filled with rejection slips), he could fan that ember back into a flame. For a guy who prided himself on ruthlessly striping metaphors out of his writings - that was a classic! Bukowski wrote every day - publication (and getting paid for it) was the gravy.
As his fame increased during the early 1970s, from readings, publications, and a weekly column (“Notes of a Dirty Old Man”) in an underground newspaper, his writing took on even more life is art spin. “Women” followed his debauched ride through the legions of groupies that sought him out. “Hollywood” followed on the heels of the filming of “Barfly” - in which he had a tiny cameo. “Barfly”/”Hollywood” could have been life imitating art, imitating life - since Bukowski penned the screenplay for the movie!
I was fascinated by his take on the film - and it wasn’t a positive one. He thought Mickey Rourke was a “showoff” in the role of Chinaski (Bukowski). In a remarkable vignette, Bukowski actually “read” the lines that he thought Rourke had overacted! He (Bukowski) would never had shouted upon entering a bar - if anything, an understated growl would have been enough. Had he lived long enough, Bukowski would probably have loved Matt Dillon’s lower key take on Chinaski in “Factotum.”
Check out this documentary. “Bukowski: Born into This” won’t disappoint.