Neglected to mark the occasion of poet and novelist Charles Bukowski's birthday yesterday? Then observe it today with a viewing of the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This (available for purchase here). The most in-depth exploration of Bukowski's life yet committed to film, the movie "is valuable because it provides a face and a voice to go with the work," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "Ten years have passed since Bukowski's death, and he seems likely to last, if not forever, then longer than many of his contemporaries. He outsells Kerouac and Kesey, and his poems, it almost goes with saying, outsell any other modern poet on the shelf." A wide range of Bukowski enthusiasts both expected and unexpected appear onscreen: Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, filmmaker Taylor Hackford (director of the earlier documentary titled simply Bukowski), and Bono, to name but a few. "Excerpts are skillfully woven with the reminiscences of former drinking buddies, fellow writers and Bukowski's second wife, Linda, the keeper of the flame, whom he married in 1985," wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "Without straining, the film makes a strong case for Bukowski as a major American poet whose work was a slashing rebuke to polite academic formalism."
Some might contrarily consider Bukowski's writing glorified wallowing, a mere profane exultation of the low life, but Born Into This reveals that the man wrote as he lived and lived as he wrote, omitting neither great embarrassment nor minor triumph. Holden mentions that Bukowski, "a pariah in high school, suffered from severe acne vulgaris, which covered his face with running sores that left his skin deeply pitted. He recalls standing miserably in the dark outside his senior prom, too humiliated to show himself," and that for all his work dealing with late-life sexual prowess, "he was a virgin until he was 24, the same age at which his first story was published. His description of sexual initiation with an obese woman whom he wrongly accused of stealing his wallet is a spectacularly unpromising beginning to the prolific sexual activity (described in his novel "Women") that flowered after fame brought admirers." Ebert asks the obvious question: "How much was legend, how much was pose, how much was real?" Then he answers it: "I think it was all real, and the documentary suggests as much. There were no shields separating the real Bukowski, the public Bukowski and the autobiographical hero of his work. They were all the same man. Maybe that's why his work remains so immediate and affecting: The wounded man is the man who writes, and the wounds he writes about are his own."