Bukowski: Born into This

dir: John Dullaghan
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The likelihood of you seeing this film and enjoying it depends on whether a) you’ve heard of Charles Bukowski, b) you’ve read and liked the writing perpetrated by Bukowski, and c) you’re happy to watch a two hour documentary about a very damaged, eloquent bastard in a cinema.

You have to weigh this up against likely alternatives, such as instead of watching Bukowski: Born Into This, you could be watching a reality television program where one of the participants is called Hotdogs. How do you live with yourself?

On each of the three points, I am sold, so along I went to watch a flick about this deeply ugly man. Heroically ugly. Child-traumatisingly ugly. Anyone who has read the man’s work and did not know what he looked like might be both surprised and reassured. He looks pretty much exactly as he should. The real ugliness is on the inside though, and that is represented as well, because it cannot help but pour forth.

As a career alcoholic he clearly developed a way of speaking so that, whether drunk, really drunk, fall over drunk or sober, he always sounded the same. Speaking either conversationally or reading his poetry, you can never tell whether he’s drunk or sober. Just to clarify matters a tiny bit more, I doubt at any stage of the two hours that we ever see him completely sober.

To speak of the ugly side of alcoholism is to imply that there’s a rosy, silver lining side to that cloud as well. There isn’t. There is the macho bullshit angle, the bohemian, libertine excess aspect that appeals to many of us and that even I take part in. You cannot count on a human pair of hands the sheer amount of times that I’ve said, texted or emailed someone and said something like “Oh man, did I get fucked up last night. I’ve got a hangover that would kill a lesser mortal.” It’s shameful behaviour, because it gives this false impression that there’s anything amusing or entertaining about being a horrible drunk.

There isn’t. Bukowski wasn’t a great writer because he was a violent drunk. He was a great writer (if you believe he was a great writer, and not a hack) AND he was a violent, wife-beating drunk. His alcoholism was life long (until various health problems stopped him from being able to imbibe the gargantuan proportions he previously enjoyed) and was symptomatic of a lot of emotional damage in childhood. It’s not the reason why he was great.

He was a genuine outsider, he felt it his whole life, and if he was (incorrectly) lumped in with Henry Miller, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, the Beat movement and the hippies it is because his very existence made him an anti-establishment voice, let alone what he produced. He became a powerful and unique voice of blue-collar, street level life, which knew nothing of bourgeois concerns but plenty about the human universals of fighting, fucking and drinking. And wondering. And longing.

The documentary, cobbled together by John Dullaghan, tries to give us a well-rounded picture of the man and his life, and it mostly succeeds. We do get a sense of the man and the life he lead, and the importance that writing held for him. Some of us might be able to relate to the fact that he is depicted as someone who spent around fifteen years working a soul-destroying job with the vain hope that one day he’d be able to live off of his creativity. The film clearly indicates that it took him over twenty years to even get close to the kind of critical and commercial success that some people expect is their due overnight.

Thousands of poems, short stories and columns in the street press later, his life still seemed to be a scrambling, dirty mess of noisy desperation. This flick is no hagiographic PR job, it doesn’t skimp on some of the details of the self-inflicted misery and squalor that he lived in for most of his life, nor does it shy away from his appalling behaviour towards some of the women in his life.

When his fortunes change, after decades of effort and having reached middle age, he himself says that he was too old to really enjoy it. Though that doesn’t stop him from partaking in the delights of nubile Dutch teenagers travelling all the way to the States just to have sex with him.

His friends and lovers that are interviewed try to give a more positive impression of the man generally through the anecdotes that are included, but they don’t hide the fact that he was a giant, drunken, belligerent infant. In most cases they still loved him.

I could have done without Sean Penn and Bono from U2 talking about him, but I guess it made the documentary look more contemporary. Tom Waits doesn’t look or act loopy for once and gives an incisive and relevant example of how and why Bukowski could speak so clearly about life in Los Angeles. The snippets of his writing and poetry that pepper the film, read in most cases by himself are breathtaking in their eloquence, and in how much they can convey with a brevity and feel that most authors would envy.

Much of the footage is cobbled together from old interviews for German, Italian and Belgian television. The Belgian interview is particularly enjoyable, in that the interviewer makes statements to Bukowski telling him that he clearly hates women, to which Bukowski’s eventual response is, “Man, you got that from reading my book? Baby, you’re fucked in the head.”

The other ancient footage, grainy and dark, perfectly suits the man as it shows him perpetually drinking and waxing rhapsodically. Any footage too clear of him would do him and our eyes a disservice.

He is asked about his childhood, which he openly refers to as a horror story. He talks about it at length, and we see how the traumatic experiences of his youth could not help but shape the man he becomes. He explains that the violence heaped upon him as a child by his father actually made him a decent writer. His point is that his father’s brutality beat the potential for pretentiousness out of him at an early age. And thus when he wrote as an adult, it was not as a pseudo-intellectual wanker, but as a man of meagre means, a rich range of vocabulary and the desire to express himself directly and clearly to the world.

It’s a harsh lesson to learn or endure for anyone, and it doesn’t really seem like it was worth it, though I’m sure Bukowski and many of his fans probably thought it was, ultimately. His hideously-disfiguring acne also meant that his teenage years and early adulthood were lived in isolation and datelessness. His story about losing his virginity at 24 to a 300 pound prostitute is priceless, and sounds entirely genuine.

Everything about the bastard seems genuine: genuinely repellent and compelling at the same time. This is, after all, a man whose novels dressed as fiction were anything but, and whose poetry reads more like prose. A man who doesn’t hide the despicable sides of his nature, but also doesn’t see himself at all the way we do.

Anyone that has read any of his books knows that his relationships with women were crazy to say the least, and the parade of women that show up in the film only emphasise this madness. He sees himself as this well of kindness and understanding that really doesn’t seem to be mirrored in the eyes of the people around him, even the ones that love him.

I don’t love the guy, let me make that clear, either through this documentary or his writing. I do appreciate much of his writing, that I don’t have difficulty saying. But whether I like the man or despise him, I can relate to him. The writers that come from outside of the arty / journalistic / academic worlds can have an immediacy and genuineness that speaks more readily to the heart and mind.

They can also give hope to some of us that we’re not necessarily going to live out the rest of our lives trapped in office-bound cubicle farms, bound by a paycheck and the fear of failure.

It also exists as an abject lesson to those who work at whatever their chosen art form is, who think that they’re entitled to some kind of acknowledgment, money or respect from the world because they’ve been working at it for a year or two and written / created a few pretty pieces. It’s a constant struggle that can seem worthless until it isn’t worthless any longer. And by that stage you’re too old to really enjoy it anyway. So don’t lose hope.

The doco isn’t a solemn, stately affair. There’s a lot of humour in it, because he was also a pretty funny guy with his languid but beautiful turns of phrase. There are also moments of tenderness, such as Bukowski reading a poem to a lost love and finding himself surprised by his own tears, only to realise that it’s the wrong poem anyway.

Taylor Hackford, a hack of a director, most recently responsible for the Ray Charles biopic Ray, relates several anecdotes arising from a documentary he made in 1973 about the guy that follows his travels to a poetry reading in San Fransisco. What’s great about this is that Hackford relates to the camera what an inveterate, cowardly liar Bukowski was, yet somehow he remained such a charismatic and entertaining guy.

It’s interesting to hear him talk about the Barbet Shroeder film Barfly, which cast Mickey Rourke as Bukowski, whom he thought did a terrible job representing him. Also, the conversation related to the camera by his last wife Linda Lee about his pathological hatred of Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney is pretty funny too.

Linda Lee describing Bukowski’s death is the one moment of true pathos in the film, as the memory whilst she relates the story stops her from speaking for a long time. She describes the way in which his face looked serene for the first time ever once he breathed out for the last time. It’s a moment worthy of Bukowski’s own best writing.

I can’t imagine it would be of any interest to anyone that hadn’t heard of the guy, except out of some kind of morbid fascination. For those who are interested, it is a pretty damn good documentary about a terrible demon who wrote like an angel, without the mythology and without the tint of rose-coloured glasses.

Drunken, belligerent, vile, monstrous and holy, all at the same time. Like your life is any better. Who are you to say no to that, huh?

8 times a doctor told you to stop drinking or you’d die and you kept doing it anyway and lived another 50 years out of 10

as the spirit fades, the form appears – Henry Charles Bukowski