The cult of Charles Bukowski, based as it is on reverence for the drunken down-and-out poet who speaks the truth, is ready-made fodder for both celebrities as well as hipsters seeking literary street cred. This successful form of middle-class exoticism, in turn, has turned off many who see Bukowski as a one-trick pony, and a drunken one at that.
While some may still leave John Dullaghan’s thorough and deft documentary Bukowski: Born Into This with that same singular impression, there’s no doubt the film enriches our understanding of this celebrated character, moving well beyond the simplified kudos Bukowski has received for being a hard-drinking, roughneck poet of the streets. Unlike some of the Beats, Bukowski was not some ivy-league dropout rambler whose manuscripts are bought by the likes of Ethan Hawke for small fortunes. Rather, the celebrities interviewed in the film— including Tom Waits, Sean Penn, and Bono—seem to have a sincere appreciation, if not love, for the tortured, acerbic writer. In the priceless archival footage the filmmaker has obviously scoured for the world over, Bukowski comes off as sincerely disdainful of pretty much everything but at the same time piquantly insightful. At one point when asked about love he says, "Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality."
As someone who went from a brutalized childhood to chronic alcoholism, Bukowski was incredibly disciplined. He accomplished the almost-superhuman feat of writing every day, this while working at an automaton job in the post office for fifteen years and also while drinking as much as he did. One is not sure if it’s the Teutonic blood or the pickled innards that kept him going. But one suspects that it is the "small ember" to write that he kept aglow through the hardest of times—this characteristic, as he explains in one interview, made writing for Bukowski, much like drinking, not a choice but a necessity.
While Dullaghan’s film is a paean of sorts, it doesn’t hold back from including footage of an enraged, irrational man whose profanity was rife and who was obviously a handful for those who tried to be with him for any extended period. Sure, Bukowski: Born Into This could be a bit shorter, and it probably should have been. Yet, like many films that take years to make and are labors of love, the filmmaker is doing a service to literary history by showing the man himself behind the myth. And while the ivory tower may look down on this character’s work, Bukowski’s rough-and-tumble mix of hard living and accessible poetic insights certainly puts him in a different class from most alcoholics. Here’s to a drinker with incredible self-discipline and a grand mission.
Bukowski: Born Into This
A film by John Dullaghan
Opens June 4 at Cinema Village, New York