The news that James Franco is directing a film about gravel-voiced, pock-faced author Charles Bukowski, the go-to man for closet writers, bedroom tough guys and incipient alcoholics, reminds us that there have been several shots on goal before. Franco has a double obstacle – films about writing are inherently uncinematic, and films that rely on an authorial voice that’s ironic but utterly deadpan are also in choppy water. So Franco is concentrating on how Bukowski’s early years – abused at home, disfigured by acne – affected his later life. Perhaps Franco is buoyed up by the success of his portrayal of another writer, Allen Ginsberg. Or perhaps not. This is not Franco’s first time behind the camera – in fact it’s his 20th, if you include various shorts among the tally of full-length features. Let’s wish him luck – the writer who died in 1994 deserves a decent memorial to so much beautiful prose (try Post Office if you’re wondering where to start). Though the films that have either sprung from his work or been about him aren’t a bad bunch, as it happens.
Factotum (2005, dir: Bent Hamer)
It’s funny how an ugly monstrosity like Bukowski attracts the pretty boys. Here, Matt Dillon bulks up a bit (but not too much) to play Hank Chinaski (as Bukowski called himself in his books) in a film that paints exactly the sort of portrait that fans of romantic dissipation want. Director/co-writer Bent Hamer builds a faintly Jarmusch-esque altar to the life artistic, while Dillon gets the jittery walk of the alcoholic just right, the cockiness of the artist and the rasp of the libertine (“an excellent fuck who had a tight pussy and took it like it was a knife that was killing her”). As a portrait of the tortured genius drinking and fucking his way through life, and taking shitty jobs to make ends meet, Factotum is just great. When Chinaski the writer actually did the writing is not entirely clear.
Barfly (1987, dir: Barbet Schroeder)
“A drink for my friends,” growled as the hand makes a wild sweep around a dark bar-room, that’s the signature line and gesture in Barbet Schroeder’s film for which Bukowski himself wrote the screenplay. Mickey Rourke, heading for the exit as a proper Hollywood star, is appropriately cast as Henry Chinaski (ie Bukowski), and the film paints a wild and dangerous picture of life on and under the barstool. What little plot there is covers one of Bukowski’s periodic savings from oblivion, by a well meaning rich girl with a literary bent (played by Alice Krige), while on the other side of the seesaw Faye Dunaway represents the boozy allure of the life Bukowski already knows, but might (repeat might) be tiring of. It took director Barbet Schroeder – no stranger to the dark side – eight years to get this simple but pungent film made. Bukowski wasn’t keen on the result.
Bukowski: Born into This (2003, dir: Joe Dullaghan)
The big advantage of Joe Dullaghan’s film about Bukowski is that it’s a documentary and features footage of the man himself. Bukowski threatening to kick butt at a poetry reading, Bukowski wanting to throw up from excess red wine drinking, Bukowski attacking his wife. But it also shows the other side of the man – tender, fearful – plus talking-head testimony from the likes of Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton and his wife, plus John Martin, the publisher who set up Black Sparrow Press just to get Bukowski’s books to market. This is a portrait of the artist as the real deal, a croak-voiced smoker of Indian beedies (“they go very well with red wine”), a romantic, a humorist, a lush but also – and this point is often overlooked – as a man who worked hard in total obscurity, who just kept on writing regardless of fame, which only came late in life. The film is a fan letter, for sure, which takes the man as myth and doesn’t do much probing below the surface. There’s plenty to see up-top though.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981, dir: Marco Ferreri)
An Italian film which went by the title Storie di ordinaria follia over there. It’s based on Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, Bukowski’s book of collected short stories. Director Marco Ferreri essentially lifts some of the seamiest tales and half-heartedly attempts to string them together. So we get Bukowski (or Serking, as he’s known here, and played by Ben Gazzara) following a woman home from Venice Beach and getting involved in rape (disputed later). Later he hooks up with a woman in a bar who likes to spear her face with a long safety pin. Earlier he’s been cleaned out by a 13-year-old who’d been giving him the eye. Bukowski was not particularly keen on this first attempt to immortalise him on screen, and objected in particular to the sexual angle that Ferreri chose to take. Where’s the work?, he beefed. It’s a fair enough beef.
Crazy Love (1987, dir: Dominique Deruddere)
Also known as Love Is a Dog from Hell – which sounds more like a Bukowski title – this cult Flemish film makes the point that inside every blistered cynic is a disappointed romantic. Geert Hunaerts plays Harry (the Bukowski avatar) as a callow youth shocked that the world of love isn’t the same as the one he’s seen up on the cinema screen. In the last two sections of this three-act quasi-biopic adapted from Bukowski books Harry is played by Josse De Pauw, first as a 19-year-old covered in suppurating acne and aching in his heart for the beautiful blonde at school, then finally as a 33-year-old who steals a corpse with a friend and then… well, let’s not go there. Sexually explicit (hey, it’s Belgium), funny, tender and macabre, Crazy Love is probably the nearest anyone has got on film to catching the anarchic, perverse spirit that draws people to Bukowski in the first place.
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© Steve Morrissey 2013