Cult writers typically spend their lives in wretched obscurity and their literary afterlives in a state of ever narrowing veneration; precious few are fawned over by celebrity hangers-on or have glowing documentaries made about them a decade after they’ve been put in the ground. Charles Bukowski, the bard of post-war L.A.’s working-class underbelly, was no ordinary cult writer, and John Dullaghan’s thorough, compelling doc Bukowski: Born Into This does a credible job of showing why.
Shot on video and striking the standard balance of talking-head reverie with B-roll exposition, Born Into This is a relatively straightforward account of Bukowski’s life. The son of a Yank serviceman and a German mother, Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. (Hank to his friends) spent his youth in the less glamorous corners of Los Angeles County being beaten and berated by his tyrannical father. The abuse spurred both his subsequent quasi-bum’s existence and later mythmaking thereof, although Bukowski was well into middle age before he could claim to earn a living as a writer.
Most of this information can be gleaned from Bukowski’s autobiographical novels Ham on Rye, Factotum, and that quintessential howl of wage-slave disenchantment, Post Office. What makes Born Into This more than just a Ken Burns–style retelling of those works—aside from its starstruck recollections of Saint Hank from buddies Harry Dean Stanton, Sean Penn, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bono, et al.—is its copious footage of Bukowski himself. Shot separately by filmmaker fans Taylor Hackford and Barbet Schroeder (director of the 1987 Bukowski-lite feature film Barfly), as well as sundry German TV film crews (Europeans can’t seem to get enough of the guy), these sequences capture Bukowski at various stages in his unlikely literary celebrity-hood performing such mundane tasks as dropping off his laundry and telling a roomful of adoring fans that he’ll kick every one of their sorry asses.
These scenes provide insight into the true source of Bukowski’s appeal. While the hard-living, harder-drinking nihilism espoused in his prose and poetry is undeniably seductive, Dullaghan’s savvy use of Hackford’s and Schroeder’s reels makes it clear that admirers are drawn less to Bukowski’s couldn’t-give-a-fuck macho bluster than to the soft, gooey center around which this protective posture grew. Affected tough-guy drawl notwithstanding, Bukowski comes across as a wounded, fragile romantic whose gruff determination not to abandon hope strikes a chord with the equally heartbroken and just as pissed off.
Not that he was a pussycat, as a disturbing scene of spousal abuse late in the film attests. Like many late-blooming social outcasts he was an egotist, an unflagging blowhard, and a bully; his writing also has its share of detractors, none of whom turn up here. For all that, Dullaghan’s film suggests that, because of a convergence of time, place, temperament, and luck, Charles Bukowski was able to assert himself as the literary “cause of goodness” his widow, Linda, and a host of others saw in him.