The River

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Hank if you Love Bukowski

Writing is the only edge we get against the Bullshit. I'm glad it's there. -- Charles Bukowski 3-11-84, San Pedro

Went to see the documentary Bukowski: Born into This Saturday night. A hot muggy night in the deep South. The wife went with me. She and I were both reading Bukowski back in the ‘80s, before we met. We used to have a running joke about his writing, a phrase we’d insert at the appropriately ironic moment. One of us would mention something about Buk in a reverent way, or read one of his poems, and the other would add: “And then I rolled over and wiped off on the sheet.”

As a gesture to father’s day weekend, the wife suggested we go to my favorite barbecue joint, Fat Matt’s. The place has soul. When we were first dating, when we were both working at a bookstore, I’d get free tickets to Braves games from a clerk whose husband was a sportswriter covering the team. We’d leave work, head to Fat Matt’s for dinner and then go on to the ball game. Great seats too, behind home plate, some 20 or 30 rows up.

Small, divey and dedicated to free live blues, Fat Matt’s feeds more than just my gut. Except for a new paint job on its wooden deck, it hasn’t changed a bit in 20 plus years. It’s sort of the Bukowski of restaurants. Nothing extraneous or phony. Completely comfortable with what it is. After some ribs, white bread and baked beans for me and a chopped sandwich, coleslaw and chips for Leigh, we went on to the Midtown arthouse where the movie had opened the night before.

We were early, so we hit the ice cream stand nearby for a strawberry milkshake – one straw, two mouths. It being a muggy night, we decided to wait for show time in the lobby. It being an independent theater, they had no problem with our bringing the milkshake in.

We sat in the large, open lobby area and read movie flyers and the alternative weekly. And people watched, trying to guess which movie the eclectic patrons were going to see – Supersize Me? The Control Room? Coffee and Cigarettes? Finally, we went into our theater. There were only 5-10 people in there, and I think it never got above 25. Sad. The paper had given it a good review (although I got the impression the reviewer didn’t like Buk). Still, where were the fans of this original American artist?

Missing out, I can only surmise. The film is a treat, a gift from one fan to another. Lots of footage of Bukowski, or "Hank" to his friends. You ride along with him in his Volkswagen, you’re invited into his apartment, shown the typer where it all happens, taken along for a tour of Buk’s childhood home, given a seat in the audience at readings. You get a lot of his life story firsthand. And he talks just like he writes. As in any biographical documentary, there are lots of interviews with people in his life, and with high-profile admirers like Tom Waits, Bono and Sean Penn. Loads of stories.

One of my favorites from early in the film comes from Taylor Hackford, a director who was going to do a film on Buk that would include his flying to San Francisco for a reading. It was the early 70s and he was newly discovered by a large audience. For the first time, hundreds of people had turned out for a reading. Hackford says Buk was nervous, and he drank the whole time, and basically behaved like an ass. Later Bukowski wrote about the experience in his alternative weekly column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. He made everyone else out to be the “villains.” The film never got produced, but Hackford says he called Bukowski and said he’d read the piece and it wasn’t like that at all. And he had it all on film. And Bukowski told him, you can do whatever you want with the film, but in my stuff, I’m the hero.

Ain’t it the truth. That’s what I love about his work. Henry Chinaski is the hero, faced with the deadening mass conformity of modern life, an outsider who never fit the needed machinery. A man who stands defiant. A sane man in a mad world. Yet what really comes through in the film is his humility, a very human and unpretentious humility. A humility that finally, I think, allowed him the stamina and the focus and the discipline to support himself in lousy jobs and to write, and keep writing, and never stop, never give up. At one point, he says it was the regular beatings he received from him father from age 6 through 11 or 12 (until he took it with no response whatsoever, spooking his father into quitting), that formed the basis for his writing -- he beat any pretension out of me, he says. And he learned to deal with pain that had no reason.

When we came out of the theater, it had cooled considerably. The patio section of the trendy restaurant next door was full and buzzing with conversation. The air was so soft, it felt like you could swim in it. On the drive home, I kept the windows down, let the air work its magic. The city sparkled.

We’d gotten to know a great American. He’d been born in Germany but lived his life in Los Angeles, California. He was working class, and he kept sane by writing. A fellow named John Martin believed in him, started Black Sparrow to publish him. After his death in 1994 at age 73, another John, Dullaghan, connected to his writing as so many around the world had. He dedicated seven years of his own life to put together a film tribute to him.

When we got home, my wife graciously agreed to ferry our babysitter, her mother, to her house 20 minutes across town. I sat outside and had a beer.

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