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Bukowski: Born into This

May 21, 2014

Bukowski: Born into This (2003)
Director: John Dullaghan

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Synopsis: A portrait of cult American writer, Charles Bukowski, with the aid of talking heads and archive footage.

Review: This magnificent documentary about maverick writer and all-round American “antihero” Charles Bukowski, excels by not merely charting the fascinating raw materials of the man’s life and work, but in finding a symbiosis between its own aesthetic and the spirit of its subject. Director John Dullaghan does a fine job of pooling the footage and narrative (though I use that word tentatively) together. Dullaghan correctly lets Bulowski’s mesmering face, voice and presence dominate proceedings, and allows the chronology to shift organically between Taylor Hackford’s seminal early ’70s documentary on Bukowski (when Bukowski was just beginning to attract a cult following), ’80s European TV interviews with Bukowski, and photographic reminiscences of Bukowski’s early life coupled with commentary from an array of his loved ones, friends and old work colleagues.

Away from the cult nature of Bukowski’s personality and the quality of his writing, what transmits so well from the film is how unlikely the Bukowski ‘success story’ actually was. A hardened drinker right throughout his youth – after a series of serious ulcers and haemorrhages in his thirties, doctors doubted how much longer he would even live, let alone write – Bukowski only really started to develop anything like a sustainable literary career in his fifties, then only received national and global fame in his sixties.

What’s interesting is that Bukowski wasn’t necessarily a great prose writer and poet, but there was something so raw and unvarnished about his voice – cutting out all the bullshit and grandiloquence used by other wannabe cult writers. In a sense, the romance of what Bukowski represented was freedom in its purest form. All he ever craved was enough money to subsist, a steady supply of booze and a typewriter, and the minimum of impingement from the outside world (namely relationships and professional responsibilities, which were frequently seen as mere irritations). There’s a brilliant sequence in the Hackford documentary that outs Bukowski’s perverse contentment in his squalid existence, where the camera tracks from a glum East Hollywood street, directly into a cramped little ground floor studio flat, that is slowly revealed to have Bukowski, comfortable and totally at ease, loafing around inside.

Perhaps the only marginal misstep from Dullaghan is to try and overdetermine a third act denouement to his Bukowski portrait with a Freudian subplot about his brutal father. Although there is undoubtedly some mileage in ascribing part of Bukowski’s personality to the severity of his childhood (perhaps the fact he was an only child was just as important?), Bukowski himself is the biggest critic of this tendency to want to over-psychoanalyse everything – he chastises himself regularly in the documentary when he senses this sentimentality coming out in his writing or his own emotions. That aside, this is a loving, high-minded introduction to the world of Bukowski, and certainly has sated my appetite to seek out more of his work. (May 2014)

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