If you’re looking for the mean, nasty, blustery, on-the-edge-of-violence, disgustingly misogynistic, foul-mouthed California writer Charles Bukowski, you won’t find him here. That Bukowski—the legendary one—is available on “The Charles Bukowski Tapes,” the 4-hour cult-classic that premiered in 1985, four years after the 1981 interview by Italian journalist Silvia Bizio that is the core of “You Never Had It.” The title is a line from Bukowski’s poem, “those sons of bitches,” referring to the author’s perspective on “humanity,” and inopportunely read at the end of the film by Bizio, whose accented English doesn’t do it justice.
To be sure, there are hints of the abrasive, sexist performer of “The Bukowski Tapes,” especially when Bizio probes the subjects of sex and gender (staples of the era), eliciting mention of 4-second sex and the claim that the women who enjoyed his readings all wanted to “fuck” him. That’s the Bukowski we all know and love—or love to hate.
The man who emerges from this five-hour, wine- and nicotine-fueled, 1960s-like session in Bukowski’s cramped and cluttered living room in middle-class San Pedro, California, 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, where he lived after moving from East Hollywood in 1978, is something other: calm, thoughtful, gracious, clever and funny, sometimes untrustworthy but often self-revealing. Avuncular. Mr. Nice Guy. Accommodating, too—bringing Bizio and the small crew into his upstairs study, even as it makes him uncomfortable to have others imagine him in such an intimate setting, and curiously noting that he seldom stepped out onto the adjoining balcony, despite its splendid views of the harbor city—the sublime did not interest him. (Bukowski died in San Pedro in 1994.)
The documentary will appeal to those familiar with Bukowski’s work (there is little discussion of his books or poems here), and particularly to those with an interest in the mind of the writer and the source of his creativity. What makes the project compelling and important is its exploration of Bukowski’s concern with protecting the simple yet powerful memories and experiences that underpin his work from anything or anyone that would corrupt or distort that personal heritage or change the way he presents it. “I can’t read Henry Miller,” Bukowski comments in discussing the author of “Tropic of Cancer” (1934, banned in the US until the 1960s), suggesting that Miller too easily moves from the concrete (Bukowski’s purview) to the abstruse, to “soft ideas”—“I want him to stay down on the streets.”
“I don’t try to explain things,” Bukowski elaborates; there’s “not too much thinking in my stuff.” He feels he’s earned something from “the utter grimness of my childhood” and from a life of hard and boring work for the post office (the title of his first novel, published in 1971 when he was 50), and he’s loathe to put it at risk by consorting with writers who “talk shop” rather than “about life.” Perhaps for this reason, Bukowski once refused a meeting with John Paul Sartre.
Bizio seems a bit infatuated with Bukowski (and why not?), and her persistence in asking about sex and gender results in mostly unreliable quips from her subject, weakening the middle-third of the film. But she occasionally asks the appropriate follow-up question when it’s necessary, and she deserves credit for keeping the man talking into the wee hours. It may be, too, that Bizio is responsible for taming the Bukowski beast and bringing out his anxieties about the fragility of his creative process and the memories that sustain it.
Director Matteo Borgardt has leavened Bukowski’s over-bearing persona with documentary footage of the poet’s haunts in Los Angeles and San Pedro, the latter a retreat from the challenges of celebrity. Bukowski’s soon-to-be wife, Linda Lee Beighle (at 37, 23 years younger), shares the couch with her bard, and has a minor role. The result is an entertaining and informative evening with one of America’s great writers—and all in under an hour.
Date: 2016 (released in US 2017)
Director: Matteo Borgardt
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Starring: Charles Bukowski, Silvia Bizio, Linda Lee Beighle (as themselves)
Runtime: 52 minutes
Available: For rental or purchase, Kio Marquee, here