Bukowski: Born Into This — The Definitive Documentary on the Hard-Living American Poet (2003)

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki: Depres­sion and Three Days in Bed Can Restore Your Cre­ative Juices (NSFW)

The Last (Faxed) Poem of Charles Bukows­ki

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukows­ki

Bono Reads Two Poems by Charles Bukows­ki, “Lau­re­ate of Amer­i­can Lowlife”

Charles Bukows­ki Reads His Poem “The Secret of My Endurance”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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