About 2 years ago a colleague from NYU (Karen Finley) suggested I write about Charles Bukowski and his screenplay for the film Barfly (1987). I knew very little about the writer and was initially more interested in why she thought I was a good choice to write the essay. The single word that convinced me to accept the invitation was “other” – she said that he was other and that I was well versed in exploring the topic because of my class – Anatomy of Difference: The Other in Film.
Thus, making true what I tell my students – that I write to learn as much as I write to teach – I accepted the invitation and that is how I met Charles Bukowski. I began by thinking about this quote from E. L. Doctorow:
Fiction is a mega-discipline that employs reportage, confession, history, myth, legend, superstition, science, religion, philosophy and the intuitive knowledge that resides in the combination of words. It excludes no data; everything is acceptable and equally appropriate, from the laws of physics to the mutterings of poor and mad people in the street.
This was particularly helpful to me because of the little bit I knew of Bukowski. It encouraged me to focus on the fact that he was indeed “different” and to resist my own judgmental tendencies. I clearly needed to validate the artist’s point of view as well as the film’s subject matter. Since Bukowski’s work was so unfamiliar to me I was careful not to read too much about him until after completing the essay. I simply watched the film and read his quotes, many of which were extracted from his writing. There was one in particular that intrigued me most and I began the essay for Silver Birch Press with it:
“You have to die a few times before you can really live.” Charles Bukowski
Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) is our main character in the film Barfly and first impressions tell me he is not anchored in a reality I know or understand. I imagined him an ancestor of the main character in the popular film Fight Club (1999). Henry, like The Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club, is obviously not enticed by “normal” life or its trappings and both appear to be self-destructive. What was clear however, was that they self-selected to be outsiders. My journey was to figure out why?
Henry loves bars and alcohol and lived in a grimy hovel with a well-brewed patina of squalor. He steals food to live, either from a fellow bar mate or unsuspecting neighbor, and refuses money even when fairly earned from a fight saying – “hey what do you think I am? A bum?” After one such fight he accepts a few dollars to buy drinks at a bar across the street.
After ordering his beer, Henry becomes intrigued with Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway) when told – “she’s crazy.” This is of course no surprise as by now we are getting to know and strangely, understand him. The romance begins to blossom as he asks – “what do you do?” to which she responds – “I drink.” After buying a few drinks Henry announces “no money, no job, back to normal” and indeed we are beginning to understand what normal is for him.
Wanda invites him to her place after stopping to mooch alcohol and cigarettes from a “patron” then asks – “why is your face so beat up?” to which he asks – “you don’t mind, do you?” Her response surprised me – “no, it looks beautiful.” This immediately makes me think of verses from Lady Gaga’s song Bad Romance:
I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
We continue to discover more about Henry as he quotes Tolstoy, goes to the aid of an abused woman and almost sings this phrase every time he is asked if he hates people or cops – “no, but I feel better when they’re not around.”
It is clear that Bukowski created a main character whose art is not just writing, but authoring the life of an outsider. We leave Barfly with some understanding that both men, Bukowski and Henry, occupy the strange space of the white male other, albeit with the privilege of self-selecting to be other. We have, I believe after watching the film, witnessed the life of a tortured soul, evidenced in Bukowski’s own words – “If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.”