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    Bukowski: Born into This

    What matters most is how well you walk through the fire

    "Bukowski: Born into This" contains no surprises for those familiar with the down-and-out icon's own autobiographical work, but would be an excellent introduction for the uninitiated.


    Novelist and poet Henry Charles Bukowski, like Che Guevara, is an icon of iconoclasm, a fantasy figure on which romantics project their visions of anti-mainstream heroism. Most commonly, to drop his name is to invoke the marginal predilections of an earthy everyman — whoring, boozing, gambling, living destitute — as sort of end in themselves, a suggestion that Vegas beats Disneyland. Predictably, like all biography-based shorthands for a particular social meaning, this understanding of Bukowski mistakes epiphenomena for essence, the reflection of the flame rather than the heat itself.

    Directed by: John Dullaghan.
    Produced by: Diane Markow, John McCormick.
    Cinematography: Matt Mindlin.
    Edited by: Victor Livingston.
    Music by: James Stemple.

    Related links: Official site
    Cinema Village 22 E. 12th St. (212) 924-3363

    Bukowski sang an unvarnished and dimpled body electric, dreamed of racetrack heavens and healthy barroom violence, and felt abiding affection for the spat-out, those who take up the least space and feel the weakest sense of entitlement. He early exiled himself to marginality and stayed there, first sensing, next seeing, then shouting and screaming that a soul-shredding, thorned thicket lined the path of ambition, comfort, and ensconcement in the milkless, silicon bosom of state, economy, and family. It is as if Nelson Algren's Man with a Golden Arm traded his cards and morphine for a typewriter and beer, but remained in the underground, unmarked poker parlor. Much more so than Allen Ginsberg, to whom he is routinely and facilely subordinated as a "minor Beat," Bukowski turned the values of post-WWII America on their head, in a way that proved impervious to cooptation and could lead to nothing more than cult success.

    Bukowski: Born into This  
    John Dullaghan's "Bukowski: Born into This" goes some distance in dispelling the cartoonish conception of Bukowski as not-so-affable boor — a conception which Bukowski himself had to fight against late in his life, when he would attend a party of academics and be expected to provide the entertainment of drinking himself into a stupor, hitting on a professor's wife, and pissing on the rug. Luckily, Dullaghan's task was eased by the nature of his subject. Bukowski is not a mysterious, elusive figure like Louis Khan of "My Architect". Bukowski had no sense of projected self, no sense of distance between literary and lived persona. He spoke and lived as he wrote, and his work was primarily a window into himself and his impressions.

    Therefore, of all the standard biopic materials here assembled - interviews, footage of poetry readings, present-day reflections by his widow, publisher, and acquaintances, and scattered snippets of his poetry - the most effective at conveying Bukowski's complexity, fragility, and raw renitence are the readings and interviews, culled from television productions made in Europe (where Bukowski was, and continues to be, more revered than in America). In them, he appears here driving through L.A. with a cracked windshield, there drunkenly arguing with and even physically abusing his wife of his later years, and here again cursing out the interviewer. He answers all questions honestly, almost without reflection; in one instance, he sheepishly, but unapologetically, relates how he took full advantage of his late-arriving fame to serially sleep with beautiful women for the first time in his life. At a filmed poetry reading, he jokes with and menaces some interlocutors.

    This vintage footage, however, appears in a disappointing context. The film's arc of exposition takes biography quite literally; it draws a picture of Bukowski's life from birth to death, hitting all the highlights and lowlights: unhappy childhood with an abusive father, being spared WWII combat by a benevolent draft-board doctor, bumming around America, returning to L.A., getting a gig at the post office, remaining there a dark dozen or so years before finally making enough from his books and his publisher's generosity to quit, capitalizing on his fame and womanizing to the point of exhaustion, being involved in the production of a film about his early life ("Barfly"), and finally marrying, settling down, and dying.

      Bukowski: Born into This
    Sound a little dull? Although there is humor and perspicacity in the telling of the tale, the artist biopic premise — that some light might be shed on the artist's art by chronicling the artist's life — is again proven more wishful than sound. What's more, the film is somewhat unnecessary: Bukowski's primary subject was his own life; his writing was almost wholly autobiographical — it covers all the film's biographical points — and his personality is stamped on every page. A mere twenty minutes reading "Post Office," "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," or any of his volumes of poetry will convey a truer sense of Bukowski's sensibility and take on life. Moreoever, in his writings, Bukowski could transform the otherwise mundane or pathetic episodes of his life into barbed or melancholy insights, horrified screams, and blunt humor, whereas, on film, his seemingly pathetic, quirky traits only make for a pathetic, quirky man. Revealing the human behind the caricature may puncture the caricature, but it does no service to the art itself, which worked the autobiographical materials into a unlacquered body of work that seduces the reader into wholehearted rejection of the precious, pretentious, delicate, false, spiritless, and middlebrow.

    However, the true purpose of "Bukowski: Born into This" is perhaps not to provide some insight into the man that his work could not, but to introduce him, advertise him, to a new audience, and spur people to pick up his work. It is not a film for the admirer, but one for potential admirers. In this modest purpose, the film can and should succeed; enough of Bukowski comes through to make it clear that he is no ordinary poet, a piece of stray antimatter in a literary universe where the outlandishly priggish "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" tops the bestseller list. As an introduction, "Bukowski: Born into This" works; as an advanced study, it cannot hope to replicate the crumpled origami that Bukowski made of his own life's experiences.

    JUNE 4, 2004

    Reader comments on Bukowski: Born into This:

  • I can't find this film anywhere!!!!   from Jillian Anderson, Jun 26, 2004
  • Re: I can't find this film anywhere!!!!   from jon, Jun 27, 2004
  • Re: I can't find this film anywhere!!!!   from tk, Jun 29, 2006
  • help with poem   from violet lucca, Dec 18, 2004
  • Re: help with poem   from Henry, Mar 27, 2005
  • Final poem   from Matias Mori, Feb 17, 2005
  • Re: Final poem   from Pierre, Mar 1, 2005
  • Re: Final poem   from Henry, Mar 27, 2005
  • Re: Final poem   from Pierre, Mar 1, 2005
  • I can't find this poem..   from April, Apr 22, 2005
  • Re: I can't find this poem..   from corrado, Jun 13, 2005
  • Re: I can't find this poem..   from Lia, Jul 31, 2005
  • Re: I can't find this poem..   from michelle, Nov 25, 2007
  • Nicely done   from Scott Poole, Nov 16, 2005
  • Bukowski   from Mike, Feb 28, 2006
  • I know how it feels to be born into this shit   from jonathan Bukowski, Sep 6, 2006
  • [no subject]   from , Sep 8, 2006

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