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'Bukowski' explores a poet's life on and between the margins

May 28, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

John Dullaghan's "Bukowski: Born Into This" accomplishes beautifully what it sets out to do, which is to reveal the man behind the crusty, hard-drinking, tough-talking persona Charles Bukowski so artfully crafted. Over the last decades of the 20th century, Bukowski, poet and subsequent novelist, became a colorful local legend who, by the time of his death at 73 of leukemia in 1994, was internationally renowned, hailed for liberating poetry from the clutches of academia.

John Martin, an office supplies company manager who in 1966 founded Black Sparrow Press to publish Bukowski, says that upon reading him for the first time, "I told myself, 'My God, this is today's Whitman.' The man of the street writing for the people in the streets." Bukowski lived hard and wrote of pain and longing with eloquence and skepticism. His was a life lived for the most part on the margin of society, in drab apartments, seedy bars, supporting himself in minimum-wage jobs but never giving up on writing poetry even when it was rejected and even though it paid little when it was published.

Ten years ago, Dullaghan, an advertising copywriter living a pressure-cooker existence, found himself in Cedars-Sinai's coronary unit for chest pains and around that time came upon Bukowski's work for the first time. He found in it the inspiration to make the most of his life and abilities, quitting his job to freelance and eventually to devote seven years to making this film. It was too late for him to meet Bukowski, but he spoke to about 150 people who knew the writer at various stages of his life, and he had at his disposal about 30 hours of footage on Bukowski, who was far from camera shy.

Dullaghan has done an excellent job of drawing upon his extensive sources to evoke the arc of Bukowski's life and its ebbs and flows. Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920 to an American father, a soldier in World War I and son of a Pasadena contractor, and a German mother. Coming to Los Angeles with his parents, he grew up in a spacious Spanish-style home on Longwood Avenue, but he was regularly beaten by his father, with his passive mother's approval; Bukowski would later calculate that his father's actions were unjustified at least 86% of the time.

Most likely as a result of the stress and misery he endured throughout his childhood and youth, Bukowski in high school experienced an attack of acne vulgaris, the skin disease's most extreme form, which found him literally covered with boils and left him craggy and pitted. Slouched and paunchy, Bukowski would come to describe himself as looking like a ravaged lion.

Bukowski was a born storyteller who says he didn't lose his virginity until he was 24, and then it was to a 300-pound prostitute who stole his wallet. He speaks of this incident with uproarious amusement and even a little sentiment. Bukowski's corrosive sense of humor is one of his key gifts.

He was captivated by women, and his first companions tended to be as scruffy or unglamorous as he was, but by the time he became a celebrity in the '60s and '70s, his poet's voice in tune with the turbulent times, he was surprised to discover that he was becoming a magnet to attractive young women, among them auburn-haired Linda Lee. She was determined, however, not to become one of his groupies, bided her time until he had completed his "research" with other women and became his savior.

"Bukowski" in essence is a celebration of a dedicated artist's exceedingly rough road to redemption, and Linda Lee Bukowski is its heroine, a woman who could see through a rough, gruff exterior to a man with a tender, vulnerable soul, just as John Martin had earlier.

By golly, when Bukowski finally married Lee in 1985 he shed tears -- it's all there on camera. Linda learned to stand up to him, made a comfortable home for him in San Pedro, improved his health, inspired him to cut back on his drinking and, says Martin, added 10 years to his life. By all appearances, Bukowski died a happy man.

If Martin and Linda Lee Bukowski are the film's dominant witnesses, scores of others contribute significantly. Some of them are as worn and eccentric as Bukowski, many are obscure and some are famous, including Bono, Sean Penn and Tom Waits.

Dullaghan includes a sufficient sampling of Bukowski's work to allow the viewer to experience its enduring power. "Bukowski: Born Into This" is more than worthy of its subject.


'Bukowski: Born Into This'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some very blunt language, some of it scatological and sexual

A Magnolia Pictures presentation. Producer-director John Dullaghan. Cinematographers Matt Jacobson, Bill Langley, 2Kid Productions, Matt Mindlin, Art Simon. Editor Victor Livingston. Music James Wesley Stemple. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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