“No matter what you do in life people are going to say you do it for a another reason than what you’re doing it. I just do it because I do it like a spider makes a web, a fish swims; I drink and I gamble and I write.”
Charles Bukowski from “I Drink, I Gamble and I Write: The Making of Barfly”
Contains Graphic Language, Physical and Verbal Abuse and Drunkenness
I still remember sitting in a sparsely filled movie theater in 1987 Tuscaloosa, for a matinee of Barbet Schroeder’s brilliant film on the life of angry poet-writer Charles Bukowski’s “Barfly,” thinking how far the creative mind pushed individuals towards self destruction, even in the midst of genius. The fact that Mickey Rourke’s character was named Henry gave me further insight into a side of myself I might not have realized as a writer that was lacking when I saw “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” in 1986.
I fancied myself a future writer and not a misogynist violent serial killing “Henry.”
For whatever reason, Hollywood doesn’t often cast “Henries” as sweethearts, loving fathers or men that enthrall women with their passion or genuine tenderness.
It’s at this point I always fall back on one of my favorite three word questions on reality:
“What the fuck?”
Consequently, after watching the serial killing Henry not only kill (fortunately off camera and before stuffing in a suitcase for the film’s downbeat, but entirely believable dénouement) the one woman who actually fell in love with him, I decided to never again go see films with protagonists or antagonists with my first name until someone wrote one who might actually be capable of love at fade out, without resorting to graphic murder sprees.
It was more than a mere movie experience since I had come to believe I could only write stoned and while any ideas that seemed clever after a puff of reefer smoke exited my lungs, in the later clarity of sobriety it was obviously untrue. Over the course of “Barfly,” one comes to love, even emphasize with this Henry. He is portrayed realistically, and with wonderful shadings and pathos by Rourke, who still echoes one of my favorite movie lines, from Barry Levinson’s 1982 comedy-drama, “Diner,” when he tells another character who “accuses” him of being a dreamer:
“If you don’t have dreams, Bagel, you have nightmares.”
Both Rourke and Faye Dunaway are the kind of actors one should always admire; here they portray deglamorized denizens of the LA barfly scene and people who drink and fight and fuck and often, in Ms. Dunaway’s character’s case, hurt someone even if they are trying to be noble. Watching Dunaway break down while eating green stolen corn on the cob or when she is first introduced in a scene that is guaranteed to fall on anyone’s favorite movie dialogue list, which coincidentally features the real Bukowski sitting on a bar stool, as the camera slowly pans by, she displays a vulnerable soul, lost in her alcoholism, who may still have hope; even a tiny glimmer despite evident hopelessness.
When Henry, who has just finally fought and defeated a bartender in his usual lounge, who usually beats the drunken character into a bloody pulp, and who rarely eats food to absorb the constant alcohol in his system, asks the bartender who she is he is told “That’s Wanda. She’s crazy.”
We can see that while the average man looking to pick up an apparent lonely woman in a bar would remain far from a possibly crazy one night stand, Henry is thrilled!
This genre bending film is such a joy to suffer with the characters and despite an expected pessimistic subject matter; the trajectory of the narrative is overflowing with humor, sometimes dark, but authentic language.
The following exchange was the point at which I knew I would one day become successful as a writer because I was so in sync with the dialogue it was if was written just for me:
You can almost get a buzz looking at Dunaway’s vacant stare, lit cigarette in her right hand and manner in which she downs her drink. She has realism to her face and demeanor; here is a woman who is still attractive but there is tarnished erosion just beneath the veneer.
“I can’t stand people. I hate them.”
“Do you hate them?”
“No, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”
Faye Dunaway Echoes Words Truer Every Day
The film is always fascinating with Alice Krige memorable as an upscale publisher, Tully Sorenson, who wants to make Henry well-known and character actor, Jack Nance, who played an even weirder Henry in David Lynch’s experimental “Eraserhead” (1979), as a private detective hired by Tully to find Henry. I saw EH at a midnight show in 1982 with only two other patrons while everyone else was next door, dressed to thrill, at the sold-out “The Rocky Horror Picture Show!”
There is not one member of the cast who is without tremendous scene presence, from the aged hooker, Grandma Moses (Gloria Leroy); bartender nemesis Eddie (Frank Stallone; Sly’s brother); likeable bartender Jim (J.C. Quinn) who befriends Henry; and all the peripheral bar patrons whose existence is to drink and without their bizarre charisma would have left the film in a vacuum.
Signature scene that always rips out my heart, which Schroeder asked Bukowsky to add to the screenplay, comes forty minutes into the 1:39 film and shows the final stages of alcoholism when an old man comes in for a shot of bar whiskey and has such bad shakes he uses a scarf to steady his hand in order to drink it. There is even a woman, Lilly (Roberta Bassin) whose ugliness from alcoholism is so authentic it is disconcerting.
The score, put together with care by Jack Baran, who doubles as associate producer, is another coup, using a wide variety of music from classical (Mahler, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Scriabin (doubtful you’ll ever find Poem of Ecstasy used to greater effect) to blues and jazz with artists such as Donny Boy Williams, Booker T. and the MG’s and John Coltrane.
Tightly edited by Eva Gardos; shot by cinematographer Robby Muller with such verisimilitude one can smell the bars; production design by Bob Ziembicki puts you onto the barstools of The Golden Horn with such credibility you can almost believe it really is “A Friendly Place,” and to director Schroder and Bukowski (1920-94; he died of Leukemia), who wrote the screenplay, and lived the life of a Los Angeles barfly and whose writing emphasized the plight of the poor, alcoholism, his relationships with women and the act of writing itself, no easy feat, sober or otherwise.
As a creative power, Bukowski was a poet, novelist, short story writer and columnist and part of the Dirty realism and Transgressive fiction literary movements. Charles Bukowski
The Real Bukowski: Drunk, Profane and Angry
A parting shot glass from my own past:
I cannot remember the numerous times I have sat in bars, notepad next to my Chivas, straight up, Courvoisier, White or Black Russian, Dirty Martini or beer and watched other drinkers. We have all seen, and indeed been, that other person who is being scrutinized. The guy who looks like he has slept in his clothes; people who are scented with a mixture of cologne, body odor and stale smoke; the woman who may be tempting but will likely be so wasted as to be either no fun or tell you to fuck off just for speaking to her; and the couple who are bickering over who is paying the tab or better, when she catches him eyeing another woman. I even patronized a few perilous bars in my life just for the experience; gay and lesbian bars in the French Quarters, all-black bars in Birmingham or biker bars in, well, wherever I could find one.
Once, a friend of mine was approached, by an exotic dancer, in 1974, while in a strip club in New Orleans and I would learn firsthand that note-taking in bars, especially in the once mob-owned clubs of NO, could have led to a swim with fishes in the Mississippi River. While gone to the rest room, my friend from Southern Miss, was asked why I was scribbling notes and he told her I was a writer working on a short story for an English Lit class. Turns out, we had both been watched by the owner who was not encouraged with anyone writing in a venue where the major attraction was scantily clad women in G-strings for a two-drink minimum.
When I returned, my notepad was gone and naturally, I asked where it was and my friend told me the discussion. The girl had taken it to the owner! Bad enough, there were actual class notes in it and rather than except it being taken I went to retrieve it!
Sure enough, the owner had perused my notes, and after some glaring from a tall, bald black bouncer, who could have easily snapped my 105 pound frame in half, handed it back to me with the none-too-subtle suggestion I throw it away or leave.
We quickly finished our drinks, left, and for the remainder of the evening I had to stick the notepad under my shirt so as to avoid further questions. I was not cool with losing my Editing Class notes but even less interested in visiting the end of the Bayou at 1 a.m.
I realize now, over thirty years later, I was destined to write, not as a barfly, but as an observer, one who surveys the world around him to find what makes it ugly, beautiful, true and authentic and share it with others.