Tuesday, June 7, 2011

BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS

John Dullaghan, 2003

"of course, you leave afterwards
or get very drunk
which is the same
thing"

On a whim I recently decided to watch
Born into This, the first comprehensive feature-length documentary about Charles Bukowski, one of the greatest writers of the last century and one of the best writers of transgressive fiction and poetry. There have been other films about the man and his work, but this fully comprehensive look has been a long time coming.

Honestly, it was great. Even though Dullaghan was an inexperienced filmmaker and took several years to complete the project, he has managed to create a fast-moving, well-organized portrait of a very beloved artist. In addition to giving the run down on Bukowski's life and work, there are tons of interviews with friends, family, and admirers, including some famous musicians like Bono and Tom Waits. There is also a lot of great footage of Bukowski doing interviews and live readings. Sadly, the film also presents for the first time his final home footage and an interview with his wife about his last moments.

Born into This has received much well-deserved critical praise. It strikes a balance between Bukowski's inner personality and outer public persona. He comes across as intelligent, funny, and unflinchingly honest about himself and his faults, which the film does nothing to hide or smooth over. We see him as a hard drinker, gambler, womanizer, and above everything, as a disciplined writer getting published and becoming famous against nearly insurmountable odds.

The interviews with him are absolutely hypnotic -- I could listen to him talk for hours. The documentary is rated R for a reason, as we hear Bukowski speak honestly about a lot of controversial subjects including his frequently abusive treatment of women and many sexual relationships. It's a little soul crushing to hear him speak with such frankness about his abusive childhood and the many failures of his adult life. He speaks totally without shame about the beatings he endured at the hands of his father and the pain of being almost disfigured from acne as a teenager. There's a segment that goes something like this:
Bukowski: My father taught me the most important lessons on how to be a writer.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Bukowski: He taught me the meaning of pain.

Born into This makes it obvious that writing allowed Bukowski to exorcise some of his demons and let go of the trauma, so that he could at least attempt to have a life. While it presents him sympathetically, I'm grateful that it doesn't flinch away from his faults and makes no apologies for his frequently bad and/or drunk behavior.

Overall this is a wonderful documentary about a brilliant man who took the most ugly things in life and turned them into art. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is a great place to start. Obviously you should also head to the library and start reading as many of his books as you can. This is definitely recommended if you like Bukowski or biographical documentaries. It succeeds on both fronts and should please newbies and seasoned fans alike. There's a DVD from Magnolia you can pick up or it's currently streaming on Netflix.

I will leave you with one of my favorite poems from Love is a Dog From Hell.

tonight

"your poems about girls will still be around
50 years from now when the girls are gone,"
my editor phones me.

dear editor:
the girls appear to be gone
already.

I know what you mean

but give me one truly alive woman
tonight
walking across the floor toward me

and you can have all the poems

the good ones
the bad ones
or any that I might write
after this one.

I know what you mean.

do you know what I mean?

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