Bukowski: Born Into This
March 29, 2006
Charles Bukowski was a famous novelist and poet who lived the grungy, skid row life that he wrote about so well and that also made him famous. He was an uncompromising counterculture icon and this documentary, Bukowski: Born Into This (2003), attempts to provide some insight into his life and unique worldview.
Director John Dullaghan has found some great, vintage archival footage of Bukowski at his rawest – drunken ramblings that, at times, almost seem confessional in nature. We also see him at poetry readings feeding into his mythology of a foul-mouthed purveyor of skid row culture. And there is footage of his private side – a gentle, family man living in the shadow of his cruel, abusive father.
Like Jack Kerouac, Bukowski spent the early 1940s traveling around the United States experiencing life, working odd jobs and living in cheap hotel rooms. He wrote many short stories during this period but couldn’t get them published. Eventually, a few saw print but not as many as he would have liked. Bukowski returned to Los Angeles (where he grew up) and became one of the city’s most famous chroniclers of its seedy underbelly. He gained notoriety for a column he wrote first in the Open City and then later in the L.A. Free Press called, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” where he wasn’t afraid to expose the hypocrisies of our culture.
Bukowski wasn’t interested in being rich because he didn’t think it was ever going to happen to him. He wanted to make enough to pay the rent and live in relative comfort. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the main criticism of Bukowski and his work – that of misogyny. This stemmed mostly from his novel, Women but he points out that he comes off as much worse than any of the women in it. Clearly, he had issues with the women in his life as illustrated in a clip where he and his second wife, Linda, get into a nasty argument that degrades into a violent altercation that is unsettling and uncomfortable to watch. One has to admire Dullaghan for not creating a simple puff piece on the man but is willing to show him warts and all.
Friends, family and fellow artists recount stories about the man and offer their impressions of his writing. U2’s lead singer, Bono praises the “directness” of Bukowski’s prose and the unflinching honesty of it. Tom Waits talks about how he got into Bukowski’s prose. He was attracted to Bukowski’s fascination with the “dark corners” or society and one can see that reflected in his own art. Sean Penn and Bono tell a funny story about how Penn arranged a meeting between Bukowski and Bono (who is a huge admirer of his work).
Born Into This paints a fascinating portrait of a crude, hard-drinking man given to bouts of paranoia and jealousy. Bukowski led a hard life but one devoid of sympathy for his plight because it was a life he chose to lead. Dullaghan has put together a compelling doc that succeeds at dispelling many of the myths surrounding Bukowski and manages to celebrate his work while also showing his less than savory side. This doesn’t demonize the man but rather humanizes him, presenting a fuller picture.
Six previously unpublished Bukowski poems are reproduced on this DVD. They will eventually see the light of day in a new collection to be published in January 2007.
“Bukowski’s Final Home Movie Footage From 1992” was shot by his wife and is considered to be the last known footage of him before his death in 1994. In it, he reads a couple pieces of his work.
There is a deleted scene where publisher John Martin recounts a story of how a female fan wrote to Bukowski, they met and spent a night together. He ended up writing about the experience. She is interviewed and recounts the experience from her perspective.
Also included are “Extended Interviews” with the likes of Taylor Hackford who gives us a walking tour of East Hollywood where Bukowski used to live and work as a postal carrier. Bono talks about the layers to Bukowski’s work and its truthfulness.
Both Tom Waits and Bono read some of Bukowski’s poetry. Waits, in particular, has that great gravelly, weathered voice perfect for the man’s prose.
“Born Into This: Behind-the-Scenes Featurette.” The director talks about how he got into Bukowski’s work and the impetus for the documentary. He had never shot a film before and learned from scratch. He credits Linda Bukowski with opening a lot of doors and giving him access to people like Bono and some of her husband’s close friends.
Finally, there is an engaging audio commentary by the film’s director John Dullaghan. In the mid 1990s, he worked a stressful job at an ad agency and started suffering from job-related health problems. He started reading Bukowski and found himself identifying with his worldview. Dullaghan talks about how he met Linda and how she suggested that he make a doc instead of writing a biography as he had originally planned. The director talks about the extensive research and leg work he did and also goes into detail about Bukowski’s life, pointing out things that didn’t make it into the film. Best of all, he tells all sorts of great Bukowski anecdotes in this enjoyable track.