A definitive screen overview of the late L.A. booze bard, "Bukowski: Born Into This" makes a compelling case for raising him from cult status to the top rank of 20th century U.S. literary figures -- while providing ample evidence of a very colorful life and times.

A definitive screen overview of the late L.A. booze bard, “Bukowski: Born Into This” makes a compelling case for raising him from cult status to the top rank of 20th century U.S. literary figures — while providing ample evidence of a very colorful life and times. Author’s continued appeal to a young and hipster readership should serve docu well in accessing urban rep houses, campus screens, and arts broadcast slots here and in Europe.

First-time director John Dullaghan labored over pic for years. While result runs a tad long, he demonstrates an impressive mix of affection and critical distance that — combined with subject’s ornery charisma, revealed in myriad archival clips — makes “Born Into This” a particularly entertaining screen bio.

More or less chronologically told, with occasional thematic digressions, docu traces Charles Bukowski’s life from his unhappy childhood as a German emigre with a bullying father through his psychiatric 4-F exemption during World War II and odd-jobbing across the country throughout the 1940s.

Settling in L.A. by decade’s end, he spent many detested years working at the post office while trying to make headway as a writer. But the Eisenhower era wasn’t exactly receptive to his gutter-realist style. Bukowski racked up rejection slips as he soaked up the kind of “experience” that would dominate his books to come: Epic alcohol benders, barroom fisticuffs, screaming fights with a series of trashy here-today, gone-tomorrow girlfriends.

At last he began placing poems and stories in the period’s tiny but influential avant-garde lit showcases, eventually becoming known — albeit to very few — as “King of the Little Magazines.” When the 1960s counterculture hit, middle-aged, plug-ugly, irascible Bukowski suddenly found himself embraced as a cult figure, largely through his acerbically ranting column in the L.A. Free Press, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin was fan enough to insist the author quit his day job, promising “$100 per month for life” (what he figured he could survive on at the time). Novels, memoirs and poetry collections soon poured forth, much expanding his readership.

To his considerable surprise, Bukowski also now found himself a fringe-celebrity magnet for groupie girls at the height of the Sexual Revolution — something he took full advantage of as “research” for an eventual tome called “Women.” Ultimately, he settled down into comparatively normal (if still boozy) domesticity with much younger spouse Linda, who’s key among many surviving commentators here. He died of leukemia in 1994, at age 74.

Pic’s last half hour loses some steam, if only because the comfortable success of his final years makes for less dramatic interest. Latter-day star pals interviewed here are Sean Penn, Harry Dean Stanton and the ever-gratuitous Bono. More interesting are comments from Martin, ex-g.f. Pam “Cupcakes” Miller, poet Jack Micheline, and filmmakers Taylor Hackford and Barbet Schroeder, who each shot terrific docu footage of Bukowski that’s excerpted here. (Most startling is a bit from Schroeder’s “Bukowski Tapes” in which he drunkenly rails against the unflappable Linda.) He’s also heard grumbling about the Mickey Rourke-Faye Dunaway film of “Barfly,” which Schroeder directed, and whose making led to the author’s very funny “fictional” tell-all, “Hollywood: A Novel.” Other Bukowski-based films — most notably Marco Ferreri’s ’81 “Tales of Ordinary Madness” and Dominique Deruddere’s ’87 “Love Is a Dog From Hell” — go unmentioned.

Earlier years are illustrated via photos and general news clips from the eras. As of 1972, there’s a wealth of footage showing Bukowski flirting/arguing with interviewers, performing public readings (wine bottle invariably within reach), revisiting favorite old haunts, etc. He’s been accused of misogyny and misanthropy, considered a temperamental crank, yet there are glimpses here of a secret softie.

One major plus is fact that his oft-at-once coarse, witty and tender writing works terrifically well in spoken excerpt — making “Born Into This” a more persuasive homage than many films profiling better-known but less instantly accessible literary voices.

Dullaghan and editor Livingston have done an excellent job turning subject’s many contradictions, myriad interview sources and a wealth of archival material into a coherent, engrossing narrative. Tech package is nicely turned.

Bukowski: Born Into This

Production

A Pictures From Earth production. Produced by John Dullaghan. Co-producers, Diane Markow, John McCormick. Directed by John Dullaghan.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, HD cam), Matt Mindlin, Bill Langley; editor, Victor Livingstone; music/sound designer, Jennifer Boyd. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition), Jan. 22, 2003. Running time: 130 MIN.
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