The latest book about Charles Bukowski (who was not, by the way, a Beat poet) is a fairly thorough examination of the various efforts made to put the writer and his work on the big screen. Divided into dozens of short chapters, it claims to be a complete list of these efforts – feature films, short films, documentaries, and more.
The author, Marc Shapiro, begins with some background about Bukowski, including the rather well-known fact that Buk supposedly hated films. (This is repeated several times, although some people claim that it was not entirely true.) This hatred, it appears, stems from Bukowski’s jealousy of all the beautiful people in movies. He was famously ugly and self-conscious and apparently felt a strong dislike for Hollywood pretty boys. Even so, he often sold the rights to his work or even took money to write scripts. Did he do it just for money? Some say yes; others say no.
The book gives information about each film. That differs from one to the next, with background details, quotes, anecdotes, and more filling out the many chapters that make up the main section of the book. Most of the better-known films are given a few pages; others just a few paragraphs. Sometimes we learn little as there is not much to know, especially for films that were never completed or which just disappeared into the fog of time.
The first film discussed is Bukowski at Bellevue, from 1970. This was when Bukowski was having his first taste of success and struggling with his newfound fame. In particular, he loathed public readings and this film documents one of these. It also chronicles his first plane ride. Shapiro gives some background, details about the film, and quotes a few reviews. Oddly, he claims that the film gained traction in 1995 after being added to Netflix… except Netflix wasn’t founded until 1997.
Next, we have 1973’s Bukowski, a very low-budget black-and-white effort that followed the poet to City Lights after an invitation from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Here, he vomited on stage. The film, like many efforts made by filmmakers to capture Bukowski’s daily life or public readings, showed him being sloppy and unpleasant. The writer claimed to be happy with his “indelicate moments” captured on film, but later turned against the director and claimed the very opposite.
That year also saw Bukowski making his acting debut as a lecherous old man. Wait, is that even acting? He is on screen for just one minute as a Wet T-Shirt Boy, charged with hosing down beautiful women and then groping them. He had no lines but one can reasonably assume he had a great time.
There are various attempts to capture Bukowski doing public readings and these naturally show him drunk and angry, not to mention nervous. Others are efforts at turning his poems, novels, and short stories into films. Shapiro is quite flattering about most of them even though, as Bukowski’s biographer Howard Sounes points out, most attempts at adapting his work for the screen were flops. He explains:
Bukowski is a very funny writer. Most filmmakers don’t get that across. I thought Barfly was terrible, and Tales of Ordinary Madness was pretentious. Factotum was better, but all of those films were more or less failures because Bukowski’s books work due to the writing. It is his sharp, witty, economical use of English that entertains the reader. That doesn’t translate into the picture on the screen. The plots of his books are slight. It’s the writing that shines.
Indeed, Bukowski himself was usually less than impressed with the efforts of filmmakers. Even when he got into it himself, tasked with writing the screenplay for Barfly, he felt that the whole thing was “repulsive.” He was vicious in talking about actors, writers, and directors. We learn about his hatred for Dennis Hopper and a spat with Sean Penn that ended in Bukowski getting revenge by groping the actor’s mother. What would he have said about James Franco, who Shapiro claims stole the rights to Ham on Rye for an as-yet-unreleased film about Bukowski’s childhood? (Neeli Cherkovski, interviewed in the most recent issue of Beatdom, was approached by Franco and invited in on this cheap scam. He was sickened by the actor’s unethical approach.)
There are very interesting accounts of Bukowski working with Jean-Luc Goddard as well as the uglier sides of filmmaking, wherein he unwittingly sells the rights to the character of Henry Chinaski and City Lights goes behind his back to sell some of his stories.
Barfly, Tales of Ordinary Madness, and Factotum are the best known of the films made of Bukowski’s work but there are many creative attempts at turning his work into short films. One of these – to my great surprise – was directed by legendary French footballer Eric Cantona. Several attempts have been made at filming “Guts,” a tale of necrophilia, and in 2015, bizarrely enough, two filmmakers took on the same anecdote from an interview Bukowski gave, in which he recounts a gory suicide.
We also have Bukowski narrating a story that is not about him, Bukowski turned into an Asian woman for one film, a Portuguese film that includes a bizarre dance routine, and a Japanese makeup advert featuring Bukowski.
As you can see, the history of putting Bukowski on film has been colourful, to say the least. What struck me was something that Shapiro eventually got around to saying in a sort of epilogue:
The filmmakers who have attempted Bukowski all have things in common: They came from obscurity; to varying degrees, they still labor in obscurity—although some have managed to carve out quite respectable careers in front of and behind the camera. For most, putting Bukowski on film was a momentary blip on the horizon, an early attempt at expression, driven by passion, admiration, creativity and the feeling that, for whatever reason and ultimate goal, they felt it had to be done. To a person it had been a special moment—a time and place they would look back on with fondness. There were the growing pains: the mistakes they’d love to have a chance to correct, the things they got right, but their admiration for Bukowski and his work inspired them.
Indeed. That is something that shines through and it is true for Shapiro, whose book this is. Although he has written several dozen books, one gets the feeling that this was a special project for him. He is not just churning out lists of facts; he truly seems interested in adding something meaningful to the growing volume of work on the life of this most enticing of literary characters.
Altogether, this is a fascinating book but I cannot overlook some of its flaws. Primarily, it does not appear to have been edited at all. It is well researched and the content is fascinating, but it is a grammatical nightmare and composed to a huge degree of typos. It is slightly repetitive and one of these repetitions is the incredibly poor use of “literally.” This word appears 35 times and is used incorrectly in most instances. Bukowski’s life was “a literal horror show,” apparently. If this book had had a decent editor, it would have been a damn sight more enjoyable. However, I see the publisher specialises in churning out pop culture books and quite possibly looks to quantity over quality. Alas, if you can stomach the mistakes you’ll find it a valuable book.
Bukowski: On Film, by Marc Shapiro