Bukowski: Born Into This (2003) Movie Review

Unlike documentaries on musicians and even visual artists, docs focused on major literary figures are far and few in between. Of course, there are the obligatory A&E spotlights on Mark Twain and Shakespeare, but when I am scouring my online movie provider of choice and can’t find anything on Dostoevsky, I start to wonder. Is the public still moved by fiction, or just celebrity memoirs and diet books? And some authors, especially in the last century, lived some absurdly reckless lives comparable with the content of their work. Recently, I watched a doc on William S. Burroughs and fell asleep within thirty minutes. If filmmakers can’t make an interesting piece about the mind that produced “Cities of the Red Night”, which is the most utterly insane novel I have read besides Ellis’s “American Psycho”, then something is very wrong.

Whether because of better funding or a higher level of self-investment, director John Dullaghan and crew did a bravura job of chronicling the life, work and evolution of dirty old author Charles Bukowski with the documentary “Bukowski: Born Into This”. Released on DVD earlier this year, “Born Into This” goes deep, and achieves this depth by meticulous organization of pertinent information, and utilizing a wide variety of resources to retell Bukowski’s mercurial, often crude, and laughable journey from physically abused child to world renowned voice in American literature.

Like his near contemporaries the Beats, Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski was a vagabond, owner of an addictive personality, and also a person who was passionate about, and determined to become, a published writer. We logically begin with his childhood, where we learn from blackly comical and bluntly honest interviews that it was not a pleasant one. However, from the pain endured in his childhood, Bukowski felt that he had undergone training proper for a writer.

These interviews, which are interspersed throughout the film, are like a beautiful bouquet of Bukowski’s self-loathing, sardonic character, intense vocabulary (I’ve never heard the phrase, “You fucking whore!” used more, and with more indignation in my life), and wide spectrum of emotions, which may or may not have been a bi-product of all the booze. During one interview, he begins crying when he reads one of his poems about an ex; in another, he verbally and physically abuses his last wife; here, he is anxiously awaiting a girlfriend to come home and watching the window like a lonely house pet; while there, he is making intellectual commentary on the human state.

Bukowski’s moments are all over the map, but the one constant is his drive to produce new material with systematic vigor everyday. And with his lifestyle, this was a feat deserving of recognition in itself; forget the fact that his writing was actually good.

From his childhood, we move on to his young adult years of roaming the US and failing to be drafted into the armed forces due to an unfavorable psychiatric examination. This is when he began seriously writing, incurring denial after denial from literary magazines and publishers until his work was finally accepted. Close friends and early supporters tell of his unflagging efforts to break into the field, even to the point of financial insufficiency, poor health and a long-running graveyard shift at the post office, which stressed him considerably, but never killed his level of creative output. Women, of course, were the bane of his existence, and at some points, his salvation.

“Born Into This” is made ever more personal by vulgar and drunken readings where Bukowski was hailed like a rock star, current readings by his famous friends and admirers like Harry Dean Stanton, the omnipresent Bono, and even commentary by one of my perennial favorites, musician Tom Waits. Bukowski’s poetry, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column, and later semi-autobiographical novels, e.g. “Post Office”, “Women” and “Ham on Rye”, are discussed as well as his ostensibly large impact on literature, depression and relationships.

What is reached by the conclusion of “Born Into This” is a thorough, enlightening, and telling depiction of an author who claimed his first sexual encounter was with the “300 pound whore” who he accused of stealing his wallet in a drunken rage, and at the same time was able to pen some extremely fawned over prose. Bukowski lovers will rejoice at this comprehensive look at the man, and if you are unfamiliar with the author and his work, watch “Born Into This” and you’ll be racing to purchase one of his books while telling a friend on your cell phone how nutty, and truly insightful, that dirty old man really was.

John Dullaghan (director)
CAST: Charles Bukowski …. Himself (archive footage)
Bono …. Himself
John Bryan …. Himself
Linda Lee Bukowski …. Herself
Marina Bukowski …. Herself
Michael Cano …. Himself
Neeli Cherkovski …. Herself


Buy Bukowski: Born Into This on DVD