There is one indelible scene in the new documentary Bukowski: Born Into This in which we find the poet and novelist Charles Bukowski standing old and craggy in the driveway of his childhood home, next to the lawn he mowed as a boy, explaining how his father would beat him if he missed a single blade of grass.
Naturally, then, his father beat him every time he mowed the lawn.
Born Into This makes the argument that those beatings and other hardships helped form Bukowski, who died in 1994, into a writer who reclaimed poetry for the people, ripping it from the clutches of the academics to speak for the drunk, the angry and the poor.
It is a point Bukowski often made, and he does so again in the film, a patchwork of conversations with friends and wives and clips from interviews he gave to European TV stations. In one clip, he coldly says that his father's beatings, administered three times a week from the ages of 6 to 11, were "very good literary training for me."
How is that? he is asked.
"When you get the [stuffing] kicked out of you long enough and long enough and long enough, you have a tendency to say what you really mean," he says. "You have all the pretense beat out of you."
Some of the most affecting moments in the film show Bukowski walking the streets of his Los Angeles, a barren suburban hell, as he reads his poems and the words appear on and then fade from the screen. "Born into this," goes the poem Dinosauria, we, "into hospitals which are so expensive that it's cheaper to die / into lawyers who charge so much it's cheaper to plead guilty."
The film unfolds as a straightforward chronology, from Bukowski's awful childhood in middle-class L.A. to his descent into poverty as a young man (at one point he claims to have survived on one candy bar a day), to the fame he achieved in his last decades. Testimonials are offered from Sean Penn, musician Tom Waits and singer Bono.
Directed by John Dullaghan, who stumbled across Bukowski's first novel, Post Office, in a bookstore 10 years ago, the film is filled with booze and cigarettes and profanity. But it also shows a surprisingly gentle, more vulnerable side of Bukowski, a side in which he laughs about wearing mismatched shoes to his beloved racetrack and cries while reading a poem about a woman he loved.
For those who know nothing of Bukowski and have not read a single page of his 40-odd books, the film is still riveting as a glimpse of an American outsider who channels his isolation into art and for its account of the craft of writing. "Nobody ever realizes they're a writer," Bukowski says. "They only think they're a writer."
He wrote hundreds, if not thousands, of poems in the '50s and '60s, sending them to Eastern Establishment magazines without even keeping copies, receiving only rejections in return. He finally broke through in smaller Western magazines and eventually came to write a column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," and sell millions of books worldwide.
But his publisher, John Martin, recalls how difficult it was to get him to quit his steady job at the post office to write full time. He didn't write for women or fame or a comfortable house in San Pedro, but all of those things came to him anyway.
"If he hadn't made any money and yet he had been able to do all the writing, that would have been enough for him, I'm absolutely convinced of that," Martin says. "He would have worked at a candy store if he had to."
Bukowski: Born Into This
Directed by John Dullaghan
Released by Magnolia Pictures
Rated Not rated
Time 92 minutes
Sun Score ***