Insanity. There’s a word you hear a lot when you first try to get sober. Personally, I sort of took offense to it. I mean other people who drank everyday were crazy. But me? I had seen worse. In fact, I know now that I purposely stacked the deck with folks crazier than myself to appear less messy,more normal. The thinking was classic bait and switch. If people noticed what trainwrecks I was with, my own trainwreckness would go unnoticed. Suffice to say, people noticed. People without serious drinking problems are rarely met with phrases like, “Thank god you got sober!’ or “You seemed pretty miserable.” Much of my insanity, as it turns out, was not actually knowing how insane I was. And therein lies the very thing I love about poet and certifiable drunken hot mess Charles Bukowski.
I started reading more of the man’s work in preparation for a Sloshed Cinema episode about Barfly. The 1987 film starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway was written by Bukowski and is,my mind, the very definition of alcoholic insanity.At one point, right after they’ve met, Dunaway and Rourke’s characters illegally hop over a fence to steal corn growing in a random downtown Los Angeles lot. The batshit initial idea to the sloppy execution to the police chase back to Dunaway’s apartment personifies the kind of bad behavior we indulge in when we’re wasted. Bukowski, who said the script was inspired by his own life, embraces the day-to-day craziness. His script makes zero attempt at redemption for these characters and in fact at times literally spits in the face of the very idea. Grimy, disgusting, loopy and oddly charming, the world of Barfly doesn’t give a crap if we the viewer likes it or judges it. There are itsy, bitsy glimmers throughout the film that maybe Henry and Wanda might have a chance of getting their shit together but in our hearts we know that won’t happen. Mainly, because Henry, Wanda and the other seedy sleazeballs that hang around in downtown LA shitholes are pretty freaking happy to wallow where they are. It’s a fascinating stance for a film to take too. Movies about drunks, of which I’m kind of becoming an expert, usually have to either make the drunk get better or get his comeuppance. Hollywood draws a very clear line in the sand, especially in classic films. Be horrible all you want but eventually you’ll pay a price. So having Henry and Co. gleefully march towards their drunken, destitute destiny with a “Who gives a crap” attitude is nothing short of revolutionary. Bukowski’s barfly status in real-life certainly helps with the authenticity of the film. He explains, here in a classic interview with Roger Ebert:
“The movie is called ‘Barfly,’ and it’s about me, because that’s what I was, a bar fly,” Bukowski explained. “You ran errands for sadists and let the bartender beat you up, because you were the bar clown. You filled people’s days with your presence, and maybe you’d get a few free drinks now and then.”
We were hunched down with our elbows on the padded edge of the bar, talking quietly, like conspirators. Linda, Bukowski’s wife, was taking down mental notes of everything.
“The way I became a bar fly,” he said, “was, I didn’t like what I saw in the 9 to 5. I didn’t want to become an ordinary working person, paying off the mortgage, looking at TV, terrified. The bar was a hiding place, to get out of the mainstream.”
“Did you decide to become a bar fly, or did you just look up one day and see a bar fly in the mirror?” I asked him.
“I can’t answer,” he said. “It was kind of a subconscious decision. Meanwhile, I was a writer on the side, selling short stories to dirty magazines. I gave up the writing after awhile and concentrated on the drinking. I refused to accept the living death of acquiescence.”
While Bukowski never officially got sober and eventually died of leukemia, the man’s legacy as the “laureate of American lowlife” is firmly cemented and we are lucky it was captured on film. In addition to Barfly, Bukowski’s alcoholic exploits played out on the big screen in 2005’s Factotum with Matt Dillon playing a version of the poet this time around. Bukowski’s own insanity works well on camera in both films and is the very thing he built his brand on. And while it definitely makes for fantastic film discussion, I can’t help feel a little grateful that I’m no longer crazy myself.