Charles Bukowski, the legendary gutter-rat-of-Los-Angeles author and poet, had such a pungent public image — the raw-meat face, like a bulldog’s mug sculpted out of hamburger; the fights and fornications and benders; the notes-from-the-underground beatnik derelict mystique — that watching “You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski,” you may be surprised to hear how tender and gentle and calmly pensive his voice is. He speaks not in a cantankerous bellow but a mellifluous purr, like a Norman Mailer who’d been mellowed out by Los Angeles. In the opening moments of this time-capsule interview documentary, Bukowski says that when he travels somewhere to give a reading and he’s met at the airport, “They expect some loud-voiced guy who gets in a taxi and rams his fist through the roof.” He adds with a surly twinkle, “You can’t do all that stuff. It’ll wear you out.”
“An Evening with Bukowski” is a 53-minute curio spun out of an extended TV interview that the Italian film journalist Silvia Bizio conducted with Bukowski in 1981, recording it on U-Matic video cassettes in the author’s San Pedro living room. The interview never ran, so it’s all being seen here for the first time. There’s been one fine documentary about Bukowski (“Bukowski: Born Into This,” released in 2003), and this quirky archival one has no pretense to be anything but the record of a casual and relaxed into-the-night conversation; it’s like a Barbara Walters interview done with five bottles of red wine.
The minor fascination of it is that Bukowski, seated on his nondescript couch in his nondescript living room in his nondescript wide-open-collared olive-green shirt, drinking vino out of a cheap stem glass, is totally himself — a scathingly sincere raconteur whose cynicism about nearly everything never detracts from how much he views experience with a certain gnarly elation. Society, to him, is a sham, but the life it tries to suppress is grand.
Nattering the night away with a few friends, along with Bizio (who’d interviewed him numerous times) and his future wife, Linda Lee Beighle, Bukowski gets drunker and drunker, puffing on thin brown cigarettes that enshroud him in smoke like the Wizard of Oz. And though it’s not like he starts slurring, the film turns into a celebration of how alcohol can lubricate and liberate a writer’s mind, leading him to chase down the ends of thoughts he might otherwise have cautiously left alone.
Bukowski talks about why there’s so much sex in his fiction, and it’s a great tale: At 50, he quit working at the post office (where he’d toiled for 16 years), and he needed to make money. He wanted to write stories about things that interested him, but Melrose Ave. was lined with sex magazines, so he added sex to the stories in order to sell them. “I’d say, ‘Well, it’s time for the sex, I’ll just jam it in here,’ and continue the story.”
The Bukowski faithful may be taken aback, since his down-and-dirty eroticism is such a legendary element of his writing. Yet Bukowski, who was 60 when this interview was shot (he died in 1994), professes a demystified attitude toward sex that seems ahead of its time. When he talks about trying to get the act over with in time for Johnny Carson’s monologue, you have the naked measure of his honesty. His escapades, he says, led him to believe that sex “doesn’t mean all that much.”
By the end of “An Evening with Bukowski,” you’ve heard Bukowski spout off about a great many things, from why he doesn’t like writers (“Talking to another writer is like drinking water when you’re in the bathtub…Get them away from a typewriter, they’re pricks”) to the different ways that men and women swear; from an intimate photograph he has hanging — he promised never to show it, but does — of Hemingway, eyes closed, lying on the floor, drunk in the morning, to his own combative philosophy of fiction (“When your critics agree with you, when your readers agree with you, you’re not quite there”). Throughout, you feel how much the spirit of Los Angeles lives in Bukowski, how it mingled Skid Row despair with a kind of meet-the-sunrise ecstasy.
He also owns up to the self-confessed “horror” of his childhood, and to how his father beat him with a razor strop three times a week from the ages of 6 to 11. “When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough,” says Bukowski, “you will have a tendency to say what you really mean.” He’s the first to admit that his writing can be hit-or-miss. Yet when you read Bukowski, you’re carried along by the music of his voice, and that happens in this movie too. You want to keep listening.