By David Daniel
“I don’t like writers. . . . Writers are very despicable people. Plumbers are better. Used car salesmen. They’re all more human than writers.”
You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski (54 min.), directed By Matteo Borgardt. Streaming via virtual cinema at the Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters.
Charles Bukowski is one of those writers who, when you read them, make you want to have what they’re having. With the likes of William Faulkner or Hunter S. Thompson that could well lead to disaster. But Bukowski was pretty much a red wine guy so, pouring myself a glass, I settled in to watch You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski.
The just-released documentary is edited from resurrected video footage of an interview recorded by a European film crew at Bukowski’s home in San Pedro, California in January of 1981. As the title suggests, the film is set up as a hang-out with the author, his girlfriend Linda Lee Beighle, a pair of their friends, and the video crew, all drinking wine and smoking tobacco.
The film opens with Italian journalist Sylvia Bizio now, unsealing the boxes in which the “lost” tapes of the interviews she conducted then have been stored. Although the video and sound have been digitally cleaned up, the production struggles to transcend the Betamax technology of the day. The result has a homemade (though professional) feel, which proves to be well suited to the subject. Bukowski never was a fancy guy.
A man who regarded life as “the graveyard above the ground,” Bukowski would have turned 100 this month. He died in 1994 at 73. He has been called the patron saint of skid row, though it’s clear this is largely a persona he carefully cultivated, a voice from the lower depths that his readership eagerly responded to. Reality, predictably, is more nuanced. He drank, sure; but his literary output — over fifty books: poems, novels, short stories — speaks of ambition, discipline, and an exacting work ethic. At the time of the filming, Bukowski had achieved success and was especially popular in Europe, which explains what has brought this crew there.
Bizio is a patient and sympathetic interviewer. Drinking and smoking along with her subject, giving him space to perform, she probes him on many fronts. Offering a disclaimer that one shouldn’t take what he says as “always true,” Bukowski opens up.
He recounts an early memory, from barely three-years-old, of punching his grandmother in the face as she leaned over his crib to look at him. He refers to childhood as a horror story; he was frequently beaten with a razor strop by his demanding father while his mother stood by in silence. Mordantly, he says, “My father was a great literary teacher. He taught me the meaning of pain. Pain without reason.”
On his influences: “Celine, John Fante — who opened my eyes. D.H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky.” And some Hemingway, whom he outgrew.
On talent: “Potential never cuts the bacon. It got to be ‘do.’” “There’s not too much thinking in my stuff. People do things, almost without thinking. And I write it almost the same way.”
On sex in his writing: he puts it there because, in the markets he was after, “it sells.”
On having writer friends: “I don’t like writers. . . . Writers are very despicable people. Plumbers are better. Used car salesmen. They’re all more human than writers.”
Despite his brusque quips and a humorous take on misanthropy, Bukowski’s responses rarely add up to anything approaching deep self-revelation; he offers no memorable credos for living or writing. Like that fist in the face of his grandmother — albeit more gently, he fends off some of Bizio’s probing. She is patient enough, amused enough, to move on; and he seems happy to.
The editing is by turns skittery and laconic, the mood exuberant and alcoholic; but the pace feels right. Beyond a brief, stumbly tour of the house, with Bukowski waving dismissively at items, including a rare photograph of Hemingway, the documentary consists mainly of the players sitting, smoking, drinking, and talking, the gathering intercut with chilly scenes of LA winter and some voiceover in which Bukowski reads from his poems. The film is backed by a moody minor-key guitar track.
Bukowski has a habit of repeating a question. His mind is working at a response, which he offers in a soft voice, his words delivered in a desultory cadence. The film contains a number of small gems: Bukowski’s account of the Hemingway photograph; and his girlfriend Linda Beighle, who soon after the original filming became his wife. She comments that he sometimes misses things because he’s caught up in entertaining — to which he adds, “too busy being Bukowski.” And it is a performance. He’s having fun with his image as a madman drunk.
Beighle emerges as a tender, vulnerable presence, offering him encouragement, refilling his glass. At one revealing point, she puts her arm on his shoulder, and he seems frozen, incapable of responding. This highlights Bukowski’s essential loneliness. Despite the bravado, the effort to project macho confidence, what comes across is isolation, a man locked in a persona he has built to protect himself but which now just keeps the world out.
Having spent this evening with Bukowski, one gets the feeling of a man whistling past the graveyard, for whom the traumas of childhood have never been forgotten. Despite the undeniable power and pathos of his poems and stories, he is a man largely inarticulate. There’s the half grin, the evasive gaze, reflexive smoking and sipping. We keep waiting for profundity. Volunteering an assessment of his work, Bukowski says “75% of what I write is good. 40% is great. 30% is crap. 10% is immortal.” He laughs that the math doesn’t add up; but it doesn’t have to. As with any artist, the work has to speak for itself. You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski gives us a sense of the man. Time will decide the percentages of his literary fame.
David Daniel is the author of more than a dozen books, including White Rabbit, a novel set in San Francisco in the Summer of Love, and four entries in the prize-winning Alex Rasmussen mystery series. His most recent book is Inflections & Innuendos, a collection of flash fiction. He has been the Jack Kerouac visiting writer in residence at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell