Owen Gleiberman
June 10, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Bukowski: Born Into This

Current Status
In Season
108 minutes
Limited Release Date
John Dullaghan
Magnolia Pictures

We gave it an A

Charles Bukowski had a pitted, ravaged face that made him look like a pound of hamburger sculpted into a skid-row bulldog. At the beginning of Bukowski: Born Into This, we see the Los Angeles writer, who churned out prose and poetry from the ’40s up through his death in 1994, in all his cussed, lecherous, alcoholic glory. Facing down the crowd at a public reading, he demands a second bottle of wine before he even gets started, and we hear descriptions of his notorious bad behavior, like the time he pulled a knife on the maître d’ of the Polo Lounge. All of this is amusingly semiscandalous — like that face, it’s part of the cult myth of Bukowski, the unholy derelict who brawled and guzzled and fornicated as hard as he wrote. The power of ”Born Into This,” which has been beautifully assembled by director John Dullaghan out of conversations with Bukowski recorded mostly for European television docs — as well as new interviews with his editor, girlfriends, and former colleagues at an L.A. post office (a place he worked at, and loathed, for 16 years) — is that it reveals Bukowski to be a far grander artist than his bum’s armor would suggest. His voice, a wily purr, expresses an astonishing gentleness of spirit (Mickey Rourke, it turns out, got it wrong in Barfly), and there are noble echoes of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Harvey Pekar in the tale of how Bukowski, after surviving a horrific childhood, spent years in the gutter of obscurity only to win a worshipful audience by filling page after page with the roar of himself.

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