Born Into This
The test of this documentary is whether it can persuade anyone who is not already a rabid fan of Charles Bukowski that almost two hours in the company of such a shambling, low-life figure is worth the effort.
When it begins, John Dullaghan's Bukowski: Born Into This seems set to recycle all the familiar, easy clichés about its subject.
There are paeans to his capacity for drink, his sexual conquests, the might of his "purple onion" (don't ask), and his hard-boiled, from-the-gutter putdowns of polite society, always performed in a dry, quietly growling monotone.
As someone whose familiarity with Bukowski's work is mainly confined to less than brilliant screen adaptations from the 1980s including Crazy Love (1987) and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983), I was not persuaded by this initial hagiographic gush. Bukowski's work has often struck me as a distasteful mixture of 'transgressive' shock tactics, blatant misogyny and what the French call a yearning for the mud.
But, point by point, Dullaghan's film confronts such tendencies to encapsulate and write-off its subject. We learn about the horrendous abuses of his childhood, the discipline he brought to his writing in the long years before he was recognised by any literary establishment, and his long history of personal humiliation, shame and embarrassment. Self-doubt, which he would twist into a particularly vicious form of psychological aggression, dogged him for most of his life.
One of the traps of contemporary documentary-making is the tendency to sentimentalise the lives of people not given to such sentimentality in the way they present themselves. Dullaghan is acutely aware of this trap, and avoids it skilfully. The moments when Bukowski let his guard down in public – as well as, it seems, in private – were few, and the film presents them without undue editorial comment. Even the very moving account of the writer's death is offered in a terse, un-Hollywood way.
Bukowski: Born Into This benefits from exhaustive archival research. Dullaghan, aided immeasurably by editor Victor Livingstone (Crumb, 1994), weaves in photographs, audio recordings and excerpts from previous documentaries by Taylor Hackford and Barbet Schroeder. Many of Bukowski's friends, subjects and ex-lovers appear – although some of his least critical and most glamorous devotees, like Bono and Sean Penn, can be a pain.
A droll highlight is a co-worker from Bukowski's days as a wage slave, Dom, who complains that his surname was altered from Muto to Moto in Bukowski's otherwise painfully truthful book, Post Office.
The film made me want to investigate Bukowski's oeuvre anew – not so much the vulgar, boastful, off-the-cuff testimonies of his ragged sexual life (which Dullaghan somewhat downplays), but the poems which incisively portray an American society mired in hatred, prejudice and mediocrity.
© Adrian Martin June 2005