"It's possible to love a human being if you don't know them too well."
Charles Bukowski has achieved such iconic status as the enfant terrible of letters, it's hard not to utter his name without a bit of self-consciousness. People should like what they like, of course, but Bukowski fans often turn the man into an anti-hero of annoying, Jerry Garcia-like proportions.
How many Bukowski-ites thought that drinking would improve their already horrid writing? How many quoted him (usually, "Women") whilst attempting to seduce the gal in the dorm room next door? How many felt their geekdom turned to macho bravado simply by clutching a copy of "Ham on Rye" in their hands (and not in their book bag)? Just watching these types wander through campus made me want to pull out a novel by Dostoyevsky or a collection of T.S. Eliot poems and hold them in front of my face to ward off their silly, tortured artist pretension.
Bukowski is the stuff of nerds and posers these days--Trekkies and Frat Boys in tattered clothing.
But, I'll admit, judging Bukowski by his lamer fans is not fair--neither to the man nor the writer, both of which are meticulously and absorbingly explored in director John Dullaghan's definitive Bukowski documentary, Bukowski: Born into This. If you're already a fan, you'll revel in the picture's lauding, if you're on the fence, you'll be in the writer's corner, and if you've never given him a look, you'll be cruising bookstores for his works. If anything, you'll love hearing the old guy talk.
Bukowski was a real working-class writer, and understanding this will make you appreciate his harsh, tell-it-like-it-is prose. The outsider, who became quite the insider once mega-fame hit (the film, after all, interviews later "friends" like Sean Penn and Bono--insert eye roll here--but applaud the great Harry Dean Stanton who shows up to talk), Bukowski had a real tough go at life. Born to abusive German parents, he says of his father, "He taught me the meaning of pain—pain without reason." From the age six to 11, his father would beat him with a razor strap three times a week, starting the boy off with an innate sense of toughness, a no-B.S. look at the world mingled with a surprising vulnerability and nostalgia. He also had acne vulgaris, a skin condition that covered his face with pimples the size of boils, later giving him the look he likened to a "ravaged lion."
As you read between Bukowski's drawn-out, intriguing drawl, you see a man who really wants to be loved—even if "love is a dog from hell." He knows how silly and fleeting the feeling is, but he's also not immune to its needed warmth, recounting women and encounters with a combination of hardboiled detachment and watery-eyed sentimentality. For instance, when discussing his loss of virginity (at age 24) to an overweight prostitute, a story that starts off nasty (he calls her a bitch) and sordid (they break the bed before he believes she stole his wallet--she didn't) turns to sad reflection; "poor girl" he says of the woman, without a tinge of mockery. Those who accuse him of "sexism" simply aren't getting the man.
Through terrific interviews with Bukowski, his friends, his publishers, girlfriends, and wives, the film covers the writer's life from childhood, to his stint wandering the country, to his hard working days as a postal worker, where he toiled for 12 years. You learn that for a guy who drank so much—doctor's threatened he would die as early as the 1950's—he worked day and night, not only at perfecting the sorting technique for postal work, but on his writing; after submitting and submitting and submitting, his hard work paid off. Bukowski might have looked like he didn't give a fuck in later years--boozing it up during readings--challenging audiences before falling down drunk--but he worked like a son of bitch to get there.
Though fans know Bukowski was around for decades, first with his underground press column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," and then through the collections put together by Black Sparrow Press, you really get a sense of just how long the writer existed in and outside the fringe. Though held up as a hipster god, he was a man who came from the Great Depression, and losing a job was terrifying to him. Once he could live as a writer, he certainly felt he'd made it.
But with the fame and the better-looking, younger women (his first wife is no looker, and now as an old women she sports a beard), Bukowski still drank, had doubts, and engaged in major rows. One simultaneously entertaining and uncomfortable clip shows him hollering at his soon-to-be wife-for cheating on him. Later, however, and in some priceless footage, we see the old man marry the woman, breaking down in tears when pronounced husband and wife.
A secret softy with the women, he nevertheless, did not mince words when it came to adapting his work to film. Not happy with the picture Barfly, a movie partially based on his life (Bukowski hated Mickey Rourke's show stopping performance--thought it nothing like him--I think Rourke is brilliant in the picture), the experience led him to write "Hollywood" in which he describes Tinseltown as "more crooked, dumber, crueler, and stupider than all the books I read about it."
An entertaining, illuminating look at a man misunderstood by both admirers and detractors, Bukowski: Born into This is an excellent ode to the leathery voiced lion. Released last week on DVD, the extras are even more illuminating with commentary by director John Dullaghan, some behind-the-scenes-footage, Bukowski's final home footage from 1992, a deleted scene and extended interviews. I don't mind hearing from Linda Bukowski and Taylor Hackford but no more Bono please. Bono even reads poetry, along with the more Bukowski-like animal, Tom Waits.
I was surprised by how much I liked Bukowski in this document. He truly feels like one of the last real hunger artists. A person from real pain, real poverty and real problems. Anyone who can last that long as a drunk without joining a 12-step program is the real deal (sorry).
I may have a soft spot for rascals and drunks (and a guy who frequented a store that feeds me about three times a week--Hollywood's Pink Elephant Liquor and Deli--that's another column) but I was charmed by this pithy, severe, yet disarmingly tender raconteur.