Starring: Bono, John Bryan, Linda Lee Bukowsky, Marina Bukowski
Reviewed by Clement von Franckenstein
Rating (a 1 6 scale): 5
My ginger cat is named Bukowski and my Siamese mix is called Tallulah so I seem to favor namesakes of eccentric, outrageous, larger than life characters. The similarity ends there however. Tallulah Bankhead was born into wealth and privilege as the daughter of a United States Senator from Alabama, whereas Henry (Hank) Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany on August 16th 1920 and came to Los Angeles with his parents aged three.
His mother, who knew hardly any English when she first arrived, had the traditional role in a patriarchal family that of master-slave with her husband. Henry Bukowski Sr, lacking confidence in his own social standing and determined to maintain impeccably high standards, was an intolerant father who ruled his family with an iron hand. He was not averse to inflicting corporal punishment for the slightest perceived infringement. The young Hank was ugly, gloomy and reserved. He resorted to sarcasm as a defense mechanism ("I had some pretty terrible parents, and your parents are pretty much your world. Thats all there is.).
As a child Bukowski suffered from severe "Acne Vulgaris, probably bought on by the trauma of being beaten almost every day from the age of 8 through 14 by his father. It would scar him forever ("I felt as if no woman would ever want to be with me. I saw myself as some kind of a freak). He did not have relations with a woman till he was 24. However when he drank alcohol, the pain disappeared, he felt emboldened to stand up to his father, and eventually, aged 19, knocked him out with a single punch and ran away from home.
I have dwelt on the trauma of his early upbringing, as it sheds light on what inspired him to become such a brilliant and prolific writer. The film explores this well, and also mentions a heart-breaking scene at his local school prom dance. Covered in bleeding acne and certain no girl wanted to be near him, the young Hank covers his cheeks with toilet paper, even as the bloodstains seep through, and watches from a window as his classmates dance and enjoy themselves.
When he was in 5th grade he wrote an essay about attending President Hoover's visit to a park in Los Angeles, which he invented. It was judged by far the best essay, and he knew he had found his vocation. Besides immersing himself in alcohol to ease his pain, he spent hours in the local library reading Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Saroyan, Carson McCullers and John Fante then little known, who would become his good friend. He also dipped into Gorky, Rabelais, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, D.H.Lawrence, Steinbeck, Kant, Nietzsche, Maupassant, Ezra Pound and ancient Chinese Poets. Those were the writers who most influenced his early apprenticeship.
In 1942 he traveled through eight states, from job to job, fight to fight, woman to woman. But he kept on writing in miserable hotels and guesthouses, sending his efforts to magazines and newspapers with no success. His first major relationship was with Jane Cooney Baker, who was ten years older than him and a raving alcoholic. This is well covered in the film, and their story played an important part in his later work, and inspired much of the script for the film Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroeder in 1987.
The young director Taylor Hackford, now an established film-maker, made a documentary about Bukowski in grainy black and white, when he was starting to be famous, but was still living in a small house in Los Angeles, and doing the night shift as a sorter at the Post Office. Many clips are shown in this film, and they show Hank driving around Hollywood in his old car and reminiscing about his early life, talking about leaving the Post office and then getting re-hired, and being interviewed by several European journalists after his books and fame had spread abroad. We are also treated to him reading his own poems drunk (including throwing up back stage) to a heckling audience, and giving back as good as he gets!
In many ways this film reminds me of Terry Zwigoff's brilliant award-winning documentary Crumb (one of my all time favorites), which follows the life and career of the brilliant eccentric cartoonist who created Fritz the Cat, and how he survived a monstrous childhood at the hands of a vile father by burying himself in his art. He also found love and companionship with a fellow artist, fathered a daughter and had a fairly normal family life.
Similarly Bukowski similarly survived his sadistic father through his writing, which was both his therapy and salvation. In 1976, aged 64, he met Linda Lee Beighle who was 32. She was an ex-hippie, and devotee of guru Meher Baba. He spent the last 18 years of his life with her and they married in 1985 after a slowly maturing relationship. In 1963 Hank fathered his only child, Marina, by Frances Smith one of several admirers with whom he had casual affairs. He maintained a very special relationship with his daughter although he rarely wrote about her. In 1970 when he was 49, Bukowski wrote his first novel, Post Office, for his mentor and publisher John Martin (who had put him on a salary of $100 a month). He had by then been working at the Post Office for eighteen years. He wrote 120,000 words (later cut to 90,000) in a kind of trance over 18 days! Like almost all of his work it was auto biographical, settling old scores with the alienating world of work. In the remaining 24 years of his life, Bukowski would publish 45 books in succession, almost without a break!
His third, longest (433 pages divided into 99 chapters) and most unstructured novel was Women, written in 1978. It tells of his relationships with 20 or so women of all kinds after four years of celibacy ("Love is ridiculous because it can't last. Sex is ridiculous because it doesn't last long enough.). By then he had met Linda and she slowly settled his life down.
In one of my favorite poems, The Genius of the Crowd, he describes perfectly the smug, priggish, holier-than-thou, rightwing neo-conservatives who now rule America via George Bush and Karl Rove. Hank says, "The collective will of the American people is to follow the herd.
"Beware the average man, the average woman, BEWARE their love. Their love is average, seeks average, but there is genius in their hatred. There is enough genius in their hatred to kill you, to kill anybody they will attempt to destroy anything that differs from their own. Not being able to create art, they will not understand art.
Charles Bukowski died on March 9th, 1994 aged 73. Earlier that year he had said, "If I stop writing I am dead. And thats the only way I'll stop: dead. As often happens to great men, he died more famous for his personality than for his work. He once said, "I am 93% the person I present in my poems; the other 7% is where art improves upon life, call it background music.
How much of that 93% was Dirty Old Man or genius, bravado or brutal honesty, the viewer of this excellent film must decide. It is an uncompromising look at a great artist "warts and all.