“There are worse things than being alone,” begins Charles Bukowski’s haunting poem “Oh, Yes.” The iconoclastic poet, souse, lover, brawler, and outcast was certainly an authority on the subjects of loneliness and pain. Raised by tyrannically abusive German parents in sunny Los Angeles, Bukowski became thoroughly familiar with humanity’s capacity for arbitrary viciousness at an early age, and his youthful years as a wandering would-be novelist in 1940s America and subsequent stint as a postal employee only brought him closer to the monotonous and infectious misery that plagued so many economically disadvantaged people of his generation. His colorful life of non-stop drinking, turbulent love affairs, and sledgehammer-blunt prose form the basis of John Dullaghan’s respectful biographical documentary Bukowski: Born Into This. Utilizing a wealth of archival interviews of the poet—who died in 1994 after a year-long struggle with leukemia—and new clips of his family, fans, colleagues, and friends (including celebrities Bono, Sean Penn, and Tom Waits) ruminating on the artist’s notorious rabble-rousing and underappreciated oeuvre, the film sets out to accomplish an ambitious goal: to resurrect Bukowski’s memory and to elevate his reputation to the level of Wordsworth, a kindred spirit who similarly rejected poetry’s rarified formalism in favor of a more natural, straightforward, and accessible language.
Dullaghan’s film exudes reverence for its subject, but its power springs from the director’s shifting between fawning stories from long-time acquaintances and the scraggly, take-it-or-leave-it surliness of Bukowski himself, who candidly rambles and raves in voluminous videotaped conversations with foreign TV reporters. The subject of Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 Barfly starring Mickey Rourke (in a performance the poet dismissively dubbed “exaggerated, kinda show-off”), Bukowski was infamous for his late-night boozing in decrepit dives and the subsequent fights or romantic liaisons (frequently with overweight women) that resulted from his severe inebriation. Dullaghan captures his subject’s sloshed charisma through footage of the author downing bottles of wine at a San Francisco reading and admirers’ amused recollections of Bukowski’s volatile personality and eccentric lifestyle. Yet it is during a wonderfully composed sequence in which Bukowski’s leathery voice narrates the titular poem while his words spring to life as subtitles atop black-and-white video of the author strolling down a dilapidated city block that the film most elegantly marries the person with the poetry.
With a bulbous nose and crinkled, pockmarked face that seemed better suited for a troll than a belligerent six-foot poet, Bukowski had a legendary mean streak but also a bemused twinkle in his bloodshot eyes and a big, toothy grin that hinted at the sentimentalist lurking underneath his external persona as a man living a hard life in a hard world. Bukowski’s incisive writing—which reached the masses via a regular column in the L.A. Free Press dubbed “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” as well as the novels Ham on Rye and Hollywood and the voluminous poetry published by longtime friend/supporter John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press—subscribed to the maxim that “As the spirit wanes, the form appears.” Yet even during his final days as a married man in Southern California’s palm tree-lined suburbs, Bukowski’s painfully passionate, immensely personal work negated the distinction between substance and style. As Dullaghan’s affectionate tribute elucidates, his life and art were one and the same.