By Elaine Wolff
Charles Bukowski had at least 10 years of published poetry under his belt (and by many accounts, quite a few more) when, in the spring of 1970, he took his first flight to Bellevue - the Washington community college, not the New York mental hospital - for a reading. His performance was captured in black-and-white film that moldered unseen for the following three decades, to be rediscovered, transfered to DVD, and released more or less in time for the 10th anniversary of Buk's death. Thanks to the efforts of Screen Edge and Eclectic DVD Distribution, it is now available for purchase on-line.
Bukowski is generally lumped with the Beat poets and writers - Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kesey - but his life was more genuinely blue-collar and hair-of-the-dog than theirs. He is the literary father of Raymond Carver as much as anyone, but unlike Carver, also a poet and chronicler of the working class and its dropouts, he never repented or cleaned up. Bukowski's attitude toward and treatment of women, both on and off the page, provokes revulsion and fascination: for fans never as much as in the Charles Bukowski Tapes, in which he comes damn close to battery on screen; and for the general public never as much as in Barfly, the 1987 chronicle of hard living starring Mickey Rourke as Buk's stand-in.
A juvenile obsession with Bukowski's flophouse ethos and exploits has sometimes obscured his literary genius, and just as importantly, the roots of his rejection of the promised fruits of the working-class life, made clear in My Father: " ... and because he wanted to be rich or because he actually / thought he was rich / he always voted Republican ... I think it was my father who made me decide to / become a bum. / I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich / then I want to be poor ... "
The quality of the film is poor, and in pre-slam days a deadpan delivery prevailed that makes Bukowski sound oddly similar to W. H. Auden, for instance, despite their widely divergent backgrounds and literary style. But for all its technical flaws, it's a satisfying document of the artist as artist, rather than as character. As Buk himself introduces one of his works: "You may not like this poem. Anyhow ... " •
By Elaine Wolff