Photos (top, center) courtesy Magnolia Pictures
To pay tribute to a man is to make him less
Midway through Bukowski: Born Into This, the new documentary about L.A.’s lush laureate, there’s a short passage about his literary groupies — about all the women, all over the world, who fell in love with Bukowski via his work, or his reputation. At one point, we’re looking at a pile of fan letters stuffed into a copy of his most popular novel, Women. Suddenly a photograph of a young woman taking a bath while she’s reading Women appears on the screen.
That’s me. I’m “Barbara,” the girl in the bathtub. My shutterbug boyfriend took me by surprise with his camera and, it turned out, sent not one but two copies to Bukowski. The idea was to have the writer keep one for himself and send the other one back to me, signed. And one of the prints did come back, with Bukowski’s autograph and a bikini drawn in Magic Marker over my crotch — an unexpected gesture of modesty from the Dirty Old Man himself.
The photo was taken at least 15 years ago, but I had been a fan since I read Post Office, Bukowski’s first novel, back in high school in a little town in western Missouri. Being exposed to Bukowski back in 1974 while living in a virtual cultural vacuum had, I reckoned, saved my life. He spoke loud and clear to me and, it turned out, to a whole generation that was too late for hippiedom, and didn’t have much patience with love and peace anyway. We were looking for truth, not necessarily beauty.
I guess I’m like a lot of people who will tell you that reading Bukowski changed their lives. However, in the case of 42-year-old former advertising copywriter John Dullaghan, the director and producer of Born Into This, it’s the literal truth. Dullaghan worked on a popular TV ad campaign for Apple Computer some years back, in which celebrities boasted about what was on their iBook. Henry Rollins was one of the famous sellouts and, being the cool underground punk-poet he is, had Bukowski on his laptop. Dullaghan had a look, liked what he read and dove passionately into the rest of Bukowski’s poetry and fiction. He came to revere the writer for his “voice of clarity.” He became a collector of rare Bukowski manuscripts and memorabilia. At one point in his research, his life even began to mirror that of his pet author. Just as Bukowski had quit his career as a mail sorter to write Post Office, Dullaghan quit his corporate job to pursue his own labor of love, a book project about his hero. It was Bukowski’s widow, Linda, who steered him toward making a documentary instead, dredging up all manner of pre-existing footage and providing leads for interviews.
Sitting over a grilled-cheese sandwich and a glass of plain water at an Eagle Rock café, Dullaghan looks an unlikely Bukowski fan — a quiet type, unassuming and serious, ready to discuss Henry Charles Bukowski Jr., whose hard drinking, gambling, whoring and profane habits gained him a kind of infamy in recent literary history. Virtually ignored by the American critical establishment while he was alive (Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet, meanwhile, had come to regard him as our greatest living poet), Bukowski eventually received recognition in his own country. But it really was too late. Bukowski had become embittered over how his reputation had been whittled down to drunken readings, video snippets of his besotted lifestyle, and a movie based on his writing — Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987) — which he hated. “I know John Martin [publisher of Black Sparrow Press] has always thought it was the drinking that hurt his reputation,” Dullaghan tells me. “People don’t take Bukowski for the serious writer that he is.”
That’s what holds the viewer in this documentary: Dullaghan’s deep understanding of his subject and of why Bukowski matters. It’s also what sets this biography apart from its predecessors, on film and in print, which have tended to focus on the poet’s low-life antics. “They don’t see the deeper side,” says Dullaghan. “Bukowski vomiting on the floor is, like, the highlight. A lot of people are just looking for the next six-pack. They’re in a space where they bounce off Bukowski. I’m in a space where maybe I’m looking for God or whatever.”
Dullaghan acknowledges that only Bukowski can be blamed for his notorious reputation for drinking, fighting, carousing and womanizing. But “That’s a defense mechanism,” he says. “Underneath it all is a very aware man, and it shows in his poetry.” But don’t worry — Bukowski: Born Into This doesn’t pull any punches. Dullaghan delivers the Bukowski we all know and love — his drinking, his fucking, his fighting and his writing. He just changes the order.