“When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough…you’ll have the tendency to say what you really mean,” states Charles Bukowski in the engaging new documentary “Bukowski: Born Into This.” That terse observation hints at the brutality of Bukowski’s childhood, when his father would beat him with a razor strop. It also affords a context in which to view his famously stripped-down, no-nonsense literature, charged with autobiographical detail, an urgent, acerbic world-view and that balls-to-the-wall take on booze, sex, poverty and the daily grind.
The documentary marks the filmmaking debut of John Dullaghan. The former advertising copywriter felt such a kinship with Bukowski that he devoted seven years to making what is, at heart, a loving tribute to a writer, his craft and, above all, the idea of living and dying by one’s own creed. “Born Into This” manages to peer beyond the Bukowski Myth to arrive at something far more layered and fascinating. Indeed, the portrait that takes shape here is of a soul as much traumatized as toughened by abuse, loneliness and cruelty.
Dullaghan gets a lot of mileage from interviews shot in the 70s and 80s, separately, by director Taylor Hackford and by European TV crews. It’s wonderfully revealing stuff, chronicling his years of rootless wandering and his fifteen years slumming at a local post office, all the while writing poems and stories for small literary magazines. That penniless obscurity contrasts sharply with the latter-day Bukowski, the counter-culture hero, reading his poetry at a San Francisco gathering, taunting his sold-out audience while reaching for a beer in the fridge placed onstage. What’s truly amazing is that, while he may command the spotlight in his later years, Bukowski, the hard-drinking rabble-rouser, is ever-present and spoiling for a fight.
Layered over this are biographical tidbits and Dullaghan’s own intensive interviews with various Bukowski acquaintances. Among the most riveting are his interviews with Bukowski’s publisher, John Martin, and wife, Linda Lee Bukowski. In the late ‘60s, Martin became Bukowski’s devoted publisher, granting him a weekly stipend that allowed him to write full-time. The direct result of Martin’s patronage gave us his novels, beginning with 1971’s “Post Office.” For more intimate insights, Dullaghan turns to Linda, a woman who weathered the Bukowski whirlwind of tantrums and starfuckers, and steered him through the twilight of his life.
This is a lovely mosaic, not unlike 1994’s “Crumb.” In fact, “Crumb’s” editor, Victor Livingston, also edited “Born Into This,” and the documentary benefits from Livingston’s ability at piecing together portraits of intense, enigmatic personalities, and making them feel altogether familiar and human. But it’s Bukowski himself who pulls this documentary together and reminds us of the immensely inspirational force of his strident wit, honest conviction and saying always what he really meant.
Directed by: John Dullaghan
Cast: Charles Bukowski, Bono, Linda Lee Bukowski, Joyce Fante, Taylor Hackford, Michael D. Meloan, Sean Penn