Documentary charts life of two-fisted poet
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff WriterBukowski: Born Into This
Four stars out of five
Written and Directed by John Dullaghan
Cast: Charles Bukowski, Linda Lee Bukowski, John Martin, Taylor Hackford
"I'm what they used to call down at the bar a 'good duker.' That's the highest compliment there is," poet and author Charles Bukowski tells an unidentified interviewer at one point in Bukowski: Born Into This.
Bukowski's pugilistic attitude is part of his legend, along with his drinking and womanizing, all irresistible subject matter for interviewers and documentarians, but Born Into This director and writer John Dullaghan has managed to resist the temptation to wallow in the sordid side of Bukowski's world, turning his lens instead to the man's prolific literary output.
The film opens with a clip from a reading in which Bukowski refuses to continue until the organizer provides another bottle of wine and then proceeds to make a half-serious threat to physically eject a heckler--it is vintage Bukowski, but as the film unwinds, one starts to wonder how much of "Buk's" macho bluster was clowning for the crowd, how much of it was self-defense and how much of it was sheer drunken bravado.
Born in Germany in 1920 to a doughboy and his war bride, Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. landed in Los Angeles at the age of 2. Apart from a brief period of collecting rejection slips and wandering the United States in the early 40s--he took a bus to Florida after dropping out of college "to get as far from my father as I could"--he rarely left that city again.
In one interview, Bukowski credits his abusive father for making him a writer.
"When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough and long enough and long enough, you have a tendency to say what you really mean. In other words, you have the pretense beat out of you. My father was a great literary teacher. He taught me the meaning of pain, pain without reason," Bukowski tells an interviewer.
Along with D.A. Levy, Doug Blazek and others, Bukowski was labeled by critics as one of the "Meat Poets," a group that shared the Beats' fascination with finding the ecstatic and sorrowful in the everyday life of the common man, but eschewed the Beats' love of prosaic metaphor and flowery description in favor of a sometimes brutal, often vulgar, directness.
The movie amounts to a series of well-crafted biographical vignettes interspersed with interviews with those who knew Bukowski and anecdotes from the bad boy of American letters. Dullaghan's original interviews tend to focus on Bukowski's working life and personal relationships while leaving the more colorful aspects of his career to be related in clips from older interviews with Bukowski.
For example, the viewer is presented with the writer regaling a German television crew with the story of how he lost his virginity at 24 to a "300-pound whore" juxtaposed with Dullaghan interviewing Bukowski's longtime publisher John Martin about his decision to sell his collection of first editions and use the money to publish Bukowski's poems.
Martin tells of negotiating an agreement in 1970 to pay Bukowski 100 dollars a month for life, the minimum the writer thought he needed to live on, whether wrote or not, on the condition he quit his much despised longtime job as a night-shift postal clerk.
Of the many heartfelt reminiscences in the film, one of the most touching moments is a graveside interview with Bukowski's widow, Linda Lee, as she talks of his death in 1994 from leukemia.
For the most part, the film consists of Bukowski speaking revealingly and honestly about what he knows best--himself. Born Into This is a comprehensive biography without being overwhelming in its detail and paints an evenhanded, often heartbreaking, portrait of one of the most intriguing writers of the last century using his own words.
"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"