Bukowski: Born Into This
2003, NR, 130 min. Directed by John Dullaghan.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 14, 2005
Los Angelean to his surprisingly soft center, poet and novelist Bukowski became the patron saint of skid row poetry in the Sixties, a bona fide celebrity in the Seventies, and an icon of truth and beauty masquerading as one of Mickey Spillane’s tough-guy ne’er-do-wells in the Eighties. Like Kerouac, Burroughs, and the Beats (a group he was at one point lumped into without ever having been a part of), Charles Bukowski no longer requires a first name. Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 film Barfly, written by Bukowski, performed by Mickey Rourke, and then soundly loathed by the poet is just the populist tip of a massive, dark iceberg that calved off dozens of books – novels, collections, chapbooks, micro-press magazines, ephemera – before Bukowski’s death in 1994. Everybody goes through a Bukowski phase but the poet was, as the title of Dullaghan’s evocative, exhaustive documentary says, born into it. He could no more escape palookaville than he could stop writing, and his basking emergence from one led directly to the other. What is your definition of love? asks an interviewer (not Dullaghan, who’s cobbled together a remarkable collection of previously filmed material). "Kind of like when you see a fog in the morning, when you wake up before the sun comes out," replies the poet. "It’s just a little while, and then it burns away." Bukowski never burned away, working from a wellspring of both love and hate (one of his best collections is titled Love Is a Dog From Hell), curdled emotions arising from life with his strict German father, who beat his son with a razor strop three times a week from the age of 6 to the age of 11. ("Do you know how many beatings that is?" says Bukowski with a rueful look, and then adds that the experience was, in the end, for the best: "It taught me how to type. In other words, you have all the pretense beaten out of you.") He spent the war and post-war years drinking and drifting and scrapping and screwing and somehow manufactured a cohesive and oddly all-American worldview from it, beaching his thick, pockmarked frame time and time again on the treacherous archipelago of damaged love. Dullaghan uncovers the human being behind the myth, thanks again to old footage, which shows Bukowski tearing up at his wedding to Linda Lee Bukowski, revisiting the old family house of horrors, and finally finding fame with the immeasurable help of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who saw in Bukowski a true American voice that not only cried in the wilderness but was the wilderness itself. Celebrity fans are on hand – Sean Penn, Bono, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton (himself a walking, talking Bukowski poem) – but the bulk, the heft, and the girth of Bukowski: Born Into This arrives in the form of the author himself, giving beery readings to Berkeley audiences clearly enjoying a contact high or sitting, ill-kempt but quiet, pensive, Heineken in one yellowy paw, in his apartment. He loathed Walt Disney’s America, and when New York Quarterly editor William Packard observes, "He was devoted to the de-dignification of all of us – someone had to kick the Mickey Mouse out of our heads," you may wish the poet had done a more thorough job of it, but you’re still overwhelmingly thankful for the naked kiss of his pen.