'Bukowski': Do Try This

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004

"FORGET the image," says Charles Bukowski, the frequently booze-pickled, battered-looking poet and novelist who is the subject of filmmaker John Dullaghan's excellent new documentary. "I have a heart."

That, in a nutshell, is the message of "Bukowski: Born Into This," a portrait of a sometimes surly, often foulmouthed, always brilliant artist that is at once humane, horrific, hilarious and deeply moving. Emotionally damaged by a father who beat him with a leather strap; physically scarred by cystic acne in adolescence; deadened by years of drudge work in such dead-end jobs as truck driver and mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service; and blessed (or cursed) with an ear for the raw, metaphor-free language of pain, sex and, yes, love, Bukowski (1920-94) was a kind of beautiful monster. A once-aspiring journalist whose hopes of legitimacy vanished around the time he was given a column by an alternative Los Angeles newspaper under the appropriate title "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," Bukowski was an artist whose work was designed to, as one interview subject says, "kick the Mickey Mouse out of our heads."

In other words, his writing was, much like the writer himself, unsubtle, violent, yet not without a certain salutary effect.

Meticulously researched and often highly entertaining, "Bukowski" consists of -- along with archival footage of and interviews with its alternately cantankerous and surprisingly sweet namesake -- newer conversations with some of the writer's celebrity fans, friends and collaborators (e.g., singers Tom Waits and Bono of U2; actors Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton; and filmmakers Taylor Hackford and Barbet Schroeder, who made the Bukowski-inspired "Barfly"). There are also appearances by old girlfriends and wives galore, including Bukowski's last spouse, Linda Lee; former co-workers; and literary colleagues, all of whom contribute to Dullaghan's prismatic portrait of a man who professed to have done little other than "drink, write and [expletive]," but whose impact on 20th-century literature was great.

Bukowski, hard-boiled poet and soft-hearted man, was full of contradictions. And the key to understanding them might be the epitaph on his tombstone, which reads "Don't try." On the one hand, the appearance of the motto inscribed on the headstone next to a pair of boxing gloves suggests a reading of belligerent challenge: Don't even think of messing with me. And there's enough footage of Bukowski profanely baiting a heckler at a reading, kicking wife Linda during an on-camera interview, and otherwise being a royal pain to support this interpretation.

On the other hand, it also calls up the image of a loser resigned to failure and obscurity, both of which he ultimately rose above, despite himself. "Don't try," then, could be the cry of the rebel, the mantra of the outsider who rejects everything associated with the banal, striving mindset irrevocably linked to the cliche of the American dream.

Bukowski threw all that over, drinking either to anesthetize himself from the pain of his "horror story" past or to liberate his dark muse, or both. He was a gambler, a lush, a stinking, embittered bum whose very self-definition incorporated giving up all that most people hold sacred.

One thing he was not, however, was a quitter, hammering out daily pages of bruised and bruising prose and poetry on his typewriter (and, later, word processor), not because he wanted to, but because he had to. As Dullaghan's film makes clear, "Don't try" is more than an ironic catchphrase with a double meaning. It's also, paradoxically, the rallying cry of a man who, despite an apparent anti-work ethic, was able to achieve great things.

As Yoda also once said, and Bukowski instinctively understood, "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try."

BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS (Unrated, 113 minutes) -- Contains much obscenity, a fair amount of discussion about drugs, drinking and sex, and some racy still pictures. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company