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By Bryan Newbury
December 11, 2006

In literary circles, there are two schools of thought regarding Henry Charles Bukowski. The first reveres, going so far as to stand him next to Whitman and Villon in the poetic pantheon. The second finds him craftless, boorish and generally not their kind of people. “How many ways can you look at rough sex or horse races,” this second group, usually consisting of equal parts obsequious academic intellectuals and overly sensitized hausfraus, will go on. The first group answers, “Quite a lot,” and braces for fisticuffs while group two laments the state of contemporary verse.

This sketch could be a bit of a simplification, but finding a gray area when it comes to Buk is like seeking common ground between English and Argentine football fans. A fitting tribute to the man. Bukowski wasn’t one for nuance.

Whatever camp one falls into, there is no disputing his selling power. In the twelve years following his death, Charles Bukowski is more than a cottage industry. From 1994 to the present, he’s had more books of poetry released than many do in a lifetime. He’s sold more than most. Matt Dillon stars in a recent adaptation of his second novel, Factotum, and the chances of seeing Buk’s pockmarked mug on a tee shirt at a rock show are exponentially greater than when he was alive.

This presented a daunting task to director John Dullaghan. When a cult figure reaches this kind of popular apogee, the longtime fans tend to get a bit restless. For the many who have shared a kinship with this drinking class hero, this level of attention is a bit unwelcome. At the very least, the 2003 release of Born Into This must have appeared opportunistic to die-hard Bukowskians. This is a group of men and women who have been known to steal titles, drink heavily and heckle Phillip Roth. Dangerous characters.

On the other hand, Bukowski fans are thrilled with even a passing glance. There is no limit to books, recordings, broadsides or… tee shirts… that a devotee might collect. Though the exposure may strike the hard core as unseemly, it must be taken into consideration that Buk was not in the company of Auden or Bunting, eschewing biography for the work itself. To the contrary, few have cultivated such a cult of personality. The more Bukowski content there is, the fans say, the better.

Dullaghan had a tightrope to walk. Yes, there is an audience for this film. A rabid one at that. That audience, however, tends to define cynical. Sure, that certain number will own a copy; but the chances of them widely deriding it as bullshit are very high.

It is with pleasure that the reviewer can report Dullaghan has the balance of a cat. Born Into This is beyond a triumph. For fans of Bukowski, and even of contemporary literature, it is an essential addition.

“Essential” is a strong term. Be assured that there is nothing in the way of exaggeration with such a claim. In addition to having a tough room to deal with, any biography, print or film, is up against the myth. As Taylor Hackford relates in an anecdote, Hank was the hero of his stories. Seldom has an individual so completely portrayed himself in his art. Biography becomes superfluous. Anyone who has read enough Bukowski feels as though he has a pretty good idea about Hank’s life.

By virtue of expansive and often candid footage of Hank in various stages of his life, in addition to insightful interviews and documents such as his post office resignation and plea for reinstatement, Born Into This does the impossible. Upon viewing it, even the most obsessed loyalist comes away with something new. It could be the medium. Film can capture those moments of vulnerability in a way that the printed word hasn’t the capability. To see Hank breaking into tears at the end of a reading of “The Shower” (“I read you the wrong poem. Shit. Getting softer and softer, kid.”) or recounting his childhood experiences at 2122 Longwood Avenue is jarring. Not that the careful reader couldn’t easily pick up on these vulnerabilities just beneath the Chinaski tough guy veneer, but seeing the dirty old drunk in sentimental moments such as this sheds a new light on the person.

Dullaghan is careful not to demystify the protagonist too much. Just minutes before we see Hank crying at his wedding, he’s berating, kicking and swinging at the future Mrs. Bukowski. There’s a healthy serving of Chinaskian derring-do and scene upon scene replete with Michelob, Schlitz, cheap wine, better wine and scotch. While it is truly surprising to find out how seriously Bukowski took retaining his postal employment, the aggregate footage portrays our horse playing hero just as we expect him. This, in some ways, is equally surprising.

If one were forced to nit-pick the film, it could be mentioned that Bukowski’s aesthetic lineage isn’t investigated. Despite the brief appearance of Joyce Fante, there is little to suggest the reader Bukowski was. Born Into This gives us a great portrait of the hard life. It presents us with the checkered relationships of Hank’s life, the girlfriends, wives and daughter. The drinking, the struggle, the philosophy that didn’t endear him to employers. Aside from one mention of Hemingway, and a passing one at that, there is precious little to contextualize Buk. Considering how often he mentioned the likes of Fante, Celine, Hamsun and Thurber, among many others, it would be useful to position Bukowski within this hierarchy. A sign of the age, but ignoring Bukowski the reader seems a bit of a disservice.

No film is without flaw, though, and measured against the merits for the film this is small beer indeed. The footage is addictive, and the inclusion of such a disparate group of interviewees from a fellow postal worker to Black Sparrow founder John Martin to Bono makes for compelling and entertaining viewing.

Born Into This has set the gold standard for literary documentary. Regrettably, the likelihood we see three more Bukowski films before the first major documentary on Robinson Jeffers or a host of other Buk favorites is high. This is obvious to any horse player worthy of the ink on his racing form. It is the cult hero pattern: ignored, then obscured, then denounced, and eventually overexposed. Should one posthumous piece in ten be as exciting as Dullaghan’s film, it will all be worth it.

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