New Bukowski Documentary Visits Late Writer at Home

The writer is both performative and confessional in 'You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski.'

The Charles Bukowski centennial occurred during a year when we’ve all gotten a chance to really clean our houses. It’s appropriate to the times that Italian critic Silvia Bizio of La Repubblica found a cache of VHS tapes in her garage, recorded at the end of the last century during the course of a 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. drinking session with the celebrated author of Hot Water Music, Post Office, and Love is a Dog From Hell, at his home in San Pedro, California.

Director Matteo Borgardt’s You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski is the longer form of an interview excerpted in 2003’s documentary Born Into This. It’s a bit of a party, with lots of wine, various photographers, and Bukowski’s young wife: he introduces her as ”My nurse, Linda Lee.” The sixty-something poet is in a fairly good mood, sometimes interrupted by moments of truculence. He’s holding court, as they used to say. 

The year is new, and the Christmas tree has just been put out on the street for the garbage collectors. I recently saw a picture on Facebook of Bukowski — the rebel poet and unrepentant drunkard — mowing his lawn just like any other suburban geezer. If that image stirs a bit of cognitive-dissonance, imagine him hanging up glass baubles on a tannenbaum.

Time and again during this long interview, we see B-roll of the seafaring town of San Pedro’s many funky liquor stores, and of today’s skid row in L.A. — the sidewalks crowded with tents. One is decorated with gold garlands for the Christmas holidays. No cheap rooms for a drunk versifier anymore. 

The acne-scarred, knob-nosed face is, as was said of Bogart, like five miles of bad road. He’s dressed in medium-security prison wear: work shirt, T-shirt and dungarees, turning his attention from the throng to play with his friendly white cat, Max, who is teased with microphone wires dangled in its face.

In Barfly (1987), Mickey Rourke plays Buk’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Heinrich was the German-American’s poet’s birthname). In Bukowski’s talk, one hears the silky-sibilance Rourke was using, as well as a boozy drawl. What isn’t in Rourke’s performance is the feline quality, the knowing, vaguely threatening Southern cadence.  

The crew goes upstairs to see his writing room, and he tries to get a rise out of them with the F-word — “I do everything up here but FUCK and eat. “This,” he says, indicating his desk, “is where I fuck my soul.”

Later Bukowski tries to quantify his prodigious work in categories from crap to immortal verse (the math comes out to 140 percent, so it’s useless to run the numbers). In vino veritas; the drinking helps Bizio pick Bukowski’s lock. He seems fond of this petite Italian, tolerating her questions, finally becomng more confessional about sex and affection.

Bukowski says he’s been writing about sex since the 1950s, because “that’s what sells, my dear.” Desire no longer rides him — he now sums up marital bliss as a no-foreplay, five-minute affair: “Let’s get it done with so I can watch TV.”

But the affecting part of the talk is all backhanded praise. Listen to his description of withholding sweet words to his wife, so she won’t become self conscious. He says he doesn’t tell Linda Lee how cute she is when she’s crossing the room because that’s one of those ”things you leave alone eternally, so they can keep existing.” A closeup shows how this non-compliment compliment makes Linda Lee’s eyes moist.

Bukowski was from a hard and old school. Raised in Germany after World War I, his father beat him with a razor strap. Then came a life of drifting, hard drinking, and several decades worth of day jobs, including a decade at the post office. What makes Bukowski different from other writers, he says, was that he didn’t start until he was 50. The question of influences and rivals comes up. Bukowski argues that a writer should be a hundred years ahead of his time, and that acceptance is just proof they’re not going to last. Writers disgust him, anyway: “Get them away from their typewriters, and they’re pricks.” 

Bizio asks a good question: what did Bukowski think about Henry Miller, with his similar German background, a similar curriculum vitae of factotum jobs, and the similar choice of life as a bum rather than a slave. Bukowski here says he can’t read Miller, finding him too celestial when the man ought to be writing about the streets. When Bizio passes on the word that Jean-Paul Sartre called Bukowski “the only poet in America.” Bukowski parries the compliment, refusing to believe it. (It is thick. Bukowski wasn’t even the only poet in San Pedro, since D. Boon of The Minutemen grew up there.)

It’s bemusing to be huge in Europe, while being just one more old beat at the race track in Los Angeles. The good side of living in what was, once, one of the most anti-intellectual towns in the world is that they mostly leave the writers alone. When I was a kid, Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man column ran in the LA Free Press. I thought of him as a species of newspaperman. It was democratic writing, keen, fearless, spare, and all about sex and death. And at the time, it seemed as ephemeral as the newsprint itself.

Now take writer Richard Meltzer — where’s his documentary? — whose “Lover Ma’m” from 1995’s The Night (Alone) matches or tops Bukowski in the kind of writing that uses heart’s blood and sperm for ink, telling of hideo-comic alcoholic romance and catastrophe.

Meltzer’s obituary essay, “A Stiff for All Seasons,” in 2003’s Autumn Rhythm, accurately judges Bukowski’s prose and pose. Meltzer describes being personally maligned by Bukowski in a poem, after having considered him a colleague and a brother. He notes the great bon mots Bukowski should have written down… and how hard he could be on intruders, noting Bukowski’s “obsession with privacy — all exhibitionists require it.”  

On the day Meltzer met Bukowski, the poet said something incredibly obscene to a girl right in front of him. It wasn’t the aggressiveness of the words that bothered Meltzer, a daredevil XXX writer if ever there was one. What really bothered Meltzer was the aspect of performance: “Gee, how premeditated. He’d obviously been saving and savoring that line all day. (The only other person I’d met who spoke in headlines and captions was Patti Smith.)”

You get both halves of Bukowski, the writer here — the performance Buk, a morose putdown artist, as well as the throbbing-hearted flirtatious artist, the humanitarian who finds humanity wanting. His line “humanity, you never had it to begin with” provided the title.

Bukowski was a figure made for cinema, a veteran of the days when drinking oneself into failure looked vaguely attractive. His monuments are the work itself, as well as the paintings of his ruined face as an L.A. mural…finally the rectangular bronze tombstone on a hill, overlooking the harbor. On it is a two-word bit of advice to other writers: “Don’t try;” with respect for Bukowski’s attempted indomitability — we all try to be indomitable but who makes it? — here is the dreaded echo of Yoda: “Don’t try, do!”

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