Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was a howling drunk, an unapologetic womanizer, and a smoking, gambling foul-mouthed literary sensation. He haunted barrooms and horse tracks. He brawled and hired prostitutes. He hung out with celebrities and is revered by legions of readers. No doubt his life contains all the stuff of a fascinating documentary -- only Bukowski: Born into This isn't it.
For a movie about a wild man, Born into This is awfully tame. Director John Dullaghan does a commendable job of chronicling his subject's life, using Bukowski's various novels and poems as portals into his life experiences, but Dullaghan never challenges the audience to determine exactly what to make of Bukowski, either as a human or as a writer. Was he a misogynist or a sage? Is it possible to be both? What is his literary legacy? Why don't universities typically teach Bukowski? Do English professors know something the rest of us don't?
Instead of answering these questions, or even raising them for the most part, Born into This takes the dull and amiable approach of trotting out a cavalcade of Bukowski's friends and celebrity admirers (including Bono, Sean Penn, Harry Dean Stanton, and Tom Waits) who express their affection for him and explain the influence his work has had on them. Most of their anecdotes are interesting, but only in the most superficial way. They tell the stories that anyone might tell about a famous author they happen to know.
It has been said that the essence of story is conflict, and there is plenty of conflict to be found in the Bukowski's life and work, yet little of it makes its way into Born into This. And the few times trouble does appear, Dullaghan doesn't seem to know how to push forward and explore it.
For instance, in an archival interview, Bukowski describes losing his virginity at the age of 24 to a "300-pound whore" he met at a bar, the first woman who ever liked him. It's a wild story and Bukowski clearly enjoys telling it. He chooses his words deliberately and pauses between phrases to let his face gather together into a sour little smile. However, the story ends badly. Bukowski accuses the prostitute of stealing his wallet and hurls curses at her until she leaves in humiliation. He then finds his wallet under the rug only moments after she's gone. Bukowski says he still feels terrible about it. "Forget the image," he tells his interviewer, "I have a heart." Really? Are we supposed to take him at his word?
Much later in the film, Dullaghan splices in footage from a previous Bukowski documentary. The author, visibly drunk, is sitting on a couch with his wife, Linda, chatting in a breezy sort of way, when he turns nasty for no apparent reason. With the cameras rolling, he snarls at her and tells her he wants a divorce. When she doesn't respond the way he wants her to, he kicks her and then hits her, on camera. Dullaghan then cuts to Linda, in present day, who gravely announces that that was the last time he hit her. She didn't take his abuse ever again. Next Dullaghan cuts to a close family friend who agrees that Linda eventually figured out how to deal with Bukowski's rage without actually having to take the worst of it. The whole sequence has a creepy, apologetic feel to it, as if Linda were the type of wife who was always telling her friends that she'd run into a wall or fell down some stairs and that's why she had a black eye and bruises on her neck. Bukowski was clearly physically abusive, but no one involved in Born into This seems ready to deal with the implications of that fact.
Nevertheless, if Born into This does prove anything, it's that a movie about Bukowski is still out there waiting to be made. It won't focus on biographical data, like Born into This does a relatively good job of doing. It'll answer the tough questions that have yet to be answered. Like, if Bukowski really was a degenerate, wife-beating monster, should I feel bad for loving his poems?