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Friday, Oct. 7, 2005
Hankering for those days of down-to-earth writers
Charles "Hank" Bukowski should need no introduction: novelist, poet-maudit, countercultural icon, the king of romantic nihilism, chronicler of working class despair and the joys of alcoholism, and the guy who put rough gutter talk -- the way people actually speak -- into the precious world of poetry.
If you find yourself with no interest in Bukowski, then congratulations: your life must be well-adjusted, ideal and perfect enough to be featured in an American Express Gold Card commercial. Anyone who's rode the rail of despair, however, anyone who's felt disconnected, alone, stuck in a meaningless job, trying to scrape change out of a pocket for one last drink, or who's lost their cool at a lover, only to bitterly regret it as dawn approaches and your room feels so damn empty . . . well, surely you've had a spell immersed in the words of Bukowski.
"There are worse things than being alone," wrote Bukowski, in a poem called "Oh, Yes." "But it often takes decades to realize this/and most often/when you do/it's too late/and there's nothing worse/than/too late." It's featured in the documentary about him by John Dullaghan, "Bukowski: Born Into This," and it's a good choice, capturing all that was great about Bukowski's writing: clear, direct, hard-edged, but not without a certain sentimentality.
The big question with a Bukowski doc is, what can it deliver? Given that the writer's work was so autobiographical, and given that it covered most of his life from his painful childhood in the 1920s and '30s (the novel "Ham On Rye") to just before his death in 1994 ("The Last Night on the Earth Poems"), it's easy to wonder what a film can offer that we don't already know. Answer: the man himself in casual interviews from the 1970s on, shot by directors Taylor Hackford ("Ray") and Barbet Schroeder ("Barfly," which was based on Bukowski's drinking habits) and lots of European TV crews.
Dullaghan arranges his material wisely. The film starts with Bukowski finishing off his second bottle of wine and threatening to kick the asses of everyone who's come to one of his readings. Dullaghan follows this quickly with a montage of "wild man" anecdotes -- of pulling a knife on a maitre d' at the Polo Lounge, of throwing sofas out of windows, of losing his virginity at age 24 (!) with a 135-kg prostitute -- that confirm the Bukowski we know.
What's surprising is he catches the tender side of the man so frequently. Continuing that same anecdote, there's a surprising tone of regret and self-reproach when Hank confesses how he mistakenly accused the prostitute of stealing his wallet.
When Bukowski is asked, by one blunt interviewer, "What is love?," his reply is pure Bukowski: "Love is like when you see a fog in the morning before the sun comes up; It's just for a little while, then it burns away." Far more surprising is when he reads a poem about showering with a woman he once loved and just breaks down entirely at the memory. As the aged Bukowski himself notes, not without some bewilderment: "I'm becoming softer and softer."
Dullaghan does a good job at spelling out what made him so hard in the first place: his brutal, disciplinarian German dad; childhood acne that was so bad he wrapped his face in toilet paper, like the Elephant Man; ulcers that almost killed him at age 35; poverty and a dedication to writing that had him living on one candy bar a day at one point. There's also a lot of stuff on his years at the post office, and the horde of groupies that swept down on him after the publication of the novel "Women."
The film is packed with people close to Bukowski who have interesting things to say: his publisher, John Martin, at Black Sparrow Press; his wife, Linda; ex-girlfriends Pam "Cupcakes" Miller and Linda King; and even his daughter Marina. Less necessary are the celebrity cameos, by folks like Bono, Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton, who seem to be there merely to validate Bukowski's work. (Although fellow barfly Tom Waits was a good choice.)
Some would say that the film suffers from a lack of critics -- and Bukowski certainly had those, both for the simplicity of his style and his perceived sexism -- but Dullaghan is honest enough to show Bukowski at his foul-tempered, alcoholic worst. A scene from one of Schroeder's interviews shows Bukowski kicking Linda on camera while viciously berating her.
That was the man, as much as any other vision of him. One of his most redeeming qualities was the honesty of his writing; He never spared himself, and the film honors that legacy.
For once, the Japanese title on a film is an improvement on the original. "Bukowski: Old Punk" makes a good point, that Bukowski -- although published by hippies in journals like Open City and the L.A. Free Press (his column was titled "Notes of a Dirty Old Man") -- really saw his star rise after the punk scene took off. Just as the Sex Pistols' cry of "No Future" was the winter to the 1960s "Summer of Love," so was Bukowski's writing a harsher, coarser riposte to the romantic, Buddhist-inflected Beat writers. John Savage -- who wrote "England's Dreaming," which chronicled the rise of punk-rock in Britain -- has described the Pistols as offering "optimism disguised as cynicism," and really, no better description could be made of Bukowski himself.