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Scars and Bars 

Bukowski gets his in a touching, terrifying documentary

Wednesday, May 26 2004
"Whadyawant, motherfuck?" They're the first words Charles Bukowski speaks in John Dullaghan's documentary about the poet and novelist, famous for his writing and infamous for his drinking and brawling and screwing. The audience member, either the acolyte or just the curious stranger, might respond, "To hear your story, Hank, that's what I want"; it would have put a smile on his acne-scarred face, which was a sort of road map to a life spent bumping into dead ends. God knows Henry Charles Bukowski, dead a decade now, loved telling stories to anyone who would listen, especially those who adored him and came bearing cameras and microphones with which to capture his rambling tales fueled by cheap wine, hand-rolled cigarettes, years of parental abuse, fame and (tiny) fortune that came late in life, and the damaged goods with whom he shared his bed and, occasionally, his fists. Dullaghan's doc, Bukowski: Born Into This, gathers all his old friends and admirers and publishers to share their tales, but most of all it lets the dead man tell his own story in archival footage that makes him seem more alive now that he's a beloved ghost who can harm no one else, especially himself.

There have been a handful of biographies of the man, and he appears in several other films, including Ron Mann's Poetry in Motion, a sort of Woodstock for the Beat writers; he can also be heard reading his works on a few hard-to-find CDs, most of which are available only as imports, because like all American writers with no time for the soft-peddling metaphor, he's more appreciated abroad than at home. His own works, or at least those not sent to publishers who traded him short stories and poems (of which he didn't keep copies) for rejection letters, remain in print and easy to find; among the best are Ham on Rye and Hollywood and Notes of a Dirty Old Man. He's worth more now dead than alive, now that the big publishers who once wouldn't touch him (HarperCollins, say) have turned him into a cottage industry. And his first editions sell in the thousands, of which he made pennies on the dollar during his lifetime.

Born Into This, assembled from interviews done with German and Belgian TV in the '70s and '80s, Taylor Hackford's own 1972 documentary, and footage from other sources, will not harm his rep. The movie opens with friends and colleagues and lovers and fans recounting the myth; theirs are stories of blades pulled on the maitre d' of the swanky Polo Lounge in Los Angeles, of dangling dicks revealed in public, of a drunk who'd just as soon crack his bottle over your head than share its contents. We see him at a reading, many decades ago, threaten an audience member who won't shut up; the crowd eggs him on, ready to witness in person what they've only read on the page. His advice, says a poet and old friend, was to "drink, write, and fuck," because nothing else mattered. It fits too neatly into the image of Bukowski, made infamous when Mickey Rourke played him in 1987's Barfly and introduced lit hipsters to the writer who was more beaten than Beat; it's less a profile than a stick figure.

Dullaghan doesn't shy away from the violence. We see old footage of Bukowski turn suddenly on his wife Linda; a quiet conversation on the couch ends with him kicking the hell out of her, calling her "cunt," threatening to leave. But many times we hear Bukowski telling some off-screen interviewer that his is an overblown reputation, that beneath the emotional and physical scars lays a tender man with a heart; he even sheds tears during a reading, as if to prove he's more than just a literary brute. Bukowski, whose own parents subjected him to beatings and horrific medical experiments to drain the boils on his face and back when he was a child, clearly was a man looking for love from somebody -- the audience, maybe; women, certainly.

He seduces the camera, telling stories that might be embellished fact or boozy fiction, like the time he lost his virginity to "The 300-Pound Whore" he accused of stealing his wallet. His was an ongoing monologue, sometimes captured on typing paper and often times caught on film; a story in 1976 continues during a 1982 interview, with others chiming in to add their own recollections. Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton and Bono recall the time they took Hank and his wife Linda to a U2 concert, and how it ended with Bukowski drunk and bleeding at his front door; others recount old fights or his 14 years spent working in the post office or how he became a writer, always with the subject chiming in from the grave.

The people in this movie look like underground comix characters -- women with hair on their chins, men with cigarette-yellowed hands, teenybopper chicks going gaga over such a damaged and deranged man. They're the "poor and the lost and the idiots" of which he wrote, just like Bukowski himself. Born Into This, its title taken from one of his poems, is a remarkable movie, because, like Crumb or even American Splendor, it adores the very people most of us might ignore if they passed us on the street. It's a love letter to someone who desperately needs one, even 10 years after his death.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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