Charles Bukowski, Bard of Booze
A Filmmaker Toasts the L.A. Writer Who Poured Over His Work
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page C01
LOS ANGELES -- One of his old haunts still stands, a cement hangover in the smoggy sunshine, the courtyard apartment with dead plants on De Longpre Avenue in East Hollywood where Charles Bukowski lived and wrote and drank and wrote some more. He was literature's most prolific boozer.
The self-styled "dirty old man," besotted and beatific, lived his life in Los Angeles, the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots. "LA was the end of a dead culture crawled west to get away from itself," he once wrote. "LA knew it was rotten and laughed at it."
Bukowski wrote about men and women as beaten down as a crunched beer can, about endurance, rage, longing, sex and, mostly, about himself. He was a bestseller in Brazil; his poetry is taught to high school students in France; in the United States, in his day, he was a symbol of rebellion, but is probably best known for the 1987 film "Barfly," where he was portrayed by Mickey Rourke (alongside Faye Dunaway), the screenplay written by Bukowski himself for a movie he didn't really like very much.
Today, Bukowski remains a cult favorite, though the critics aren't exactly sure whether to consider him a modern Walt Whitman or a minor misogynistic poet in the post-Beat tradition.
But the raunchy goat was an American original. And more complicated -- more vulnerable, desperate, conscientious and, strangely, middle-class -- than his mythology, which he more than stoked. And now he comes back to life, 10 years after his death (not of cirrhosis, but leukemia) in "Bukowski: Born Into This," a new documentary by a first-time director who never met him. It opens in Washington on Friday.
John Dullaghan was an adman, successful but panicky, frustrated with his own life in ways that tend to rear up in one's thirties, when he first read Bukowski in 1994, the year the poet and novelist died at the age of 73. Dullaghan, now 42, was browsing through the Tower Records bookshelves when he came across Bukowski's "Post Office," his first novel, written in three weeks, about his 14-year sojourn as a clerk and carrier in the Postal Service, a job that almost drove him, quite literally, insane. Something clicked for Dullaghan, from the first sentence of the book: "It began as a mistake."
"I'd had some bad jobs myself, so I could relate," says Dullaghan, now with thinning hair, a goatee, a wife and young son, sitting in a Cuban restaurant in Pasadena. He recalls the book's last lines, how he quit the post office and his friends thought he was crazy: "In the morning it was morning, and I was still alive. Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought. And then I did."
So Dullaghan quit, too. He spent eight years, and $200,000 of his own money, shooting interviews with Bukowski's old publishers, comrades, wives and girlfriends (and Tom Waits, Bono, Harry Dean Stanton and Sean Penn), and gathering more than 30 hours of obscure footage of Bukowski himself, which is the best stuff, in which he holds forth for Italian, Belgian and German journalists over the course of three decades -- a glass of wine always within reach, huffing on a nasty-looking Bidi cigarette (made in India and, as Bukowski joked, "rolled by lepers") -- scenes in which Bukowski is by turns is charming, obnoxious, insightful, slurred.
In one bit, deep in his cups, he is shown kicking his last wife, Linda Lee, off the couch, threatening divorce. In the film's opening sequence, just before he performs a reading at San Francisco's City Lights bookstore, Bukowski, already drunk on cheap wine, turns into a darkened hallway and pukes.
Dullaghan considers his documentary a portrait of an artist, struggling against demons. It is a respectful, valuable and thorough piece of work. Not flashy, but solid. "I made a lot of mistakes," Dullaghan says, "but I got a ton of great footage." Though a few critics have accused him of hagiography, he believes "it is as accurate a movie in two hours as you're going to get."
The early reviews have been mostly kind. "The power of 'Born Into This,' " Owen Gleiberman writes in Entertainment Weekly, "is that it reveals Bukowski to be a far grander artist than his bum's armor would suggest. His voice, a wily purr, expresses an astonishing gentleness of spirit . . . and there are noble echoes of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Harvey Pekar in the tale of how Bukowski, after surviving a horrific childhood, spent years in the gutter of obscurity only to win a worshipful audience by filling page after page with the roar of himself."
The roar of himself. That is a line Bukowski might have liked. The critic Fred Shuster, writing in the Los Angeles Daily News, saw the documentary differently: "a grueling two hours spent in the company of this one-man argument for the return of Prohibition."
Drinking is the river that runs through Bukowski's life and the film. "I decided that I would always like getting drunk," Bukowski writes of his childhood in the novel "Ham on Rye" -- a brutal time of ritualistic razor strop beatings administered by his father and a bout of acne that left his face pitted and scarred. "It took away the obvious and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn't become obvious yourself."
But Dullaghan shines light on myth. "Bukowski wasn't just a drinking machine," the filmmaker says. He was also a writing machine. He produced more than 45 books of poetry and prose. "He'd sit at his table, drink a bottle or two of red wine, and write 10 poems. This is day after day," Dullaghan says. "Amazing output."
In the film footage of Bukowski, even as he lived in crummy little apartments, with beer cans overwhelming the garbage pail, you can glimpse the neat, orderly desk, the port in the storm -- the typewriter, stacked paper, a pencil or two, an ashtray.
At the beginning of his writing career, in his twenties, Bukowski's short stories were repeatedly rejected by the East Coast Establishment represented by Harper's and Atlantic Monthly. Bukowski grew up in a middle-class house in a Los Angeles suburb; though he might have slummed in the gutter, he was not born in it. "To fatten up his experience," as Bukowski called it, he went on the road in the late 1940s and '50s, traveling around America, living in flophouses, taking odd jobs in St. Louis, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Atlanta (the period portrayed in "Barfly"). The drinking was marathon.
He was back in Los Angeles in 1955 when a stomach ulcer exploded and he was rushed, bleeding from both ends, to the L.A. county hospital, where a physician told him one more drink and you're dead. In the film, a much older Bukowski lifts a glass of red to the camera and smiles, saying doctors aren't always right. The scene is not heroic, but sad, in the way drunks are sad.
Dullaghan does not show Bukowski to be a fraud, though he allows the film to show that the swaggering poet was also possessed by fears, both ordinary and existential. After all, the ultimate rebel did work at the post office for 14 years -- and at one point he quits, then writes a sniveling letter begging for his job back.
"I think he visited Skid Row," Dullaghan says, "but he wasn't an inhabitant. One reviewer said Bukowski wasn't a bum, he was a fake bum. But he understood. Alcohol was his coping mechanism. He understood it. As he understood misery and desperation.
"What appeals," Dullaghan observes, "is the anger, his familiarity with the dark nights, and he was not afraid to go to those places."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Tempest in a tosspot: The late writer and drinker Charles Bukowski.