Feature: Bukowski caught on film

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  May 28, 2004 at 4:31 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 28 (UPI) -- Ten years after his death, a documentary about the life and work of influential Southern California poet-novelist Charles Bukowski is coming to U.S. movie theaters.

"Bukowski: Born into This" was directed by John Dullaghan, who spent the better part of the last decade steeping himself in his subject and interviewing about 150 people who knew Bukowski. It includes extensive footage of Bukowski at his most outrageous -- employing in real-life conversation the same kind of vulgar, scatological language that made his poetry and novels a hit with his largely underground fan base.

Bukowski's childhood was particularly unhappy. His father beat him incessantly, and his adolescence was made miserable by a severe case of acne that left his face profoundly scarred.

He got used to living in conditions that fell substantially short of affluence. He lived in rundown Los Angeles apartments and began an almost-lifelong habit of drinking to excess. His writing reflected a life of extreme commonness.

Bukowski used his own life as the basis for the screenplay for the 1987 movie "Barfly," starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway as two alcoholics who drink to forget the crummy lives they live when they're not at the bar. The roughneck quality of Bukowski's writing is a diametric opposite of the kind of work Dullaghan was doing when he first discovered Bukowski.

"I was working in advertising," Dullaghan told United Press International. "I was writing Apple computer's advertising for (the ad agency) BBDO. It was just a job that wasn't a right fit; working in a corporation just wasn't for me. I was doing well, but I was suffocating. I read 'Post Office.'"

Bukowski's first published novel, "Post Office" chronicles what it was like to work in what Dullaghan called "this soul-crushing, authoritative, rigid environment." Dullaghan related immediately to Bukowski's take on life at the bottom.

He started to read everything the writer wrote and to contact people who knew Bukowski firsthand.

"I felt that I was at a place in time to record the life of this very influential author," he said. "Mrs. Bukowski gave me the go ahead and supported me in it and I thought, 'Here's an opportunity.'"

Mrs. Bukowski is Linda Lee, who Bukowski married after spending most of his adult life enjoying the company of as many women as would have him.

In the process of shooting the documentary, Dullaghan met several mainstream artists who counted Bukowski as a major influence on their own work -- including actor-singer Tom Waits, Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn and U2 singer Bono. Dullaghan said such artists are drawn to Bukowski because he is "uncompromising" and because he "doesn't sell out."

Bukowski's following is small by almost any measurement of commercial success, but it is fiercely loyal. Dullaghan said that's understandable.

"The movie-going public and the reading public, movie companies, want feel-good movies," he said. "Bukowski looks problems straight in the eye and he addresses problems nobody wants to address."

Even after he became famous in the American counterculture, Bukowski remained a well-kept secret among the mainstream.

Los Angeles poet Kate Gale said she was introduced to Bukowski's work in Paris in the 1980s, at a time when he wasn't read much in the United States.

Gale called Bukowski "an acquired taste." She said the most powerful aspect of his writing was its ability to disturb.

"You can't help but like this person, but at the same time you know this person is nasty," she said. "That's disturbing."

Dullaghan said Bukowski's appeal lay partly in his status as an outsider who spoke to other outsiders.

"You're not alone and there's good in you," said Dullaghan. "If you work at it you can take that good and bring it out in the world and do something with your life. It's about making the most of your talents, but also making the most of your suffering."

After "Bukowski: Born into This" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003, Dullaghan said he "pretty much" devoted all his time to film. Still, he said he did some freelance advertising work, because he faced the kind of mundane financial obligations that never seemed to be a burden for Bukowski.

"While all of this was going on, (my wife and I) also had a child and bought a house," he said. "You have to pay attention to that side of it too."

Ironically, now that he has something of a reputation as a filmmaker, Dullaghan said it has become a little tougher to get advertising-writing assignments.

"As a copywriter it sort of sunk me," he said. "People thought of me as a film guy, so they wouldn't call me for the writing jobs."

Dullaghan now envisions a career as a film documentarian, if he can swing it.

"There are some people in the world who are doing wonderful things, spiritual teachers," he said. "I'd like to capture these people -- bring their teachings and what they're doing to the screen. Sort of taking Bukowski to the next step."


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