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.
By PETER THEIS
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
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|
|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
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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
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
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.
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
|JUNE 4, 2004|
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