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Barbet Schroeder's film career never amounted to much. Aside from BARFLY, he's best known for SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and KISS OF DEATH - both solid but uninspiring modern noirs. He doesn't have a particular visual style (aside from the occasional languid pan) and he directed movies in a lot of different genres. But while both BARFLY and THE BUKOWSKI TAPES have been criticised (particularly BARFLY), both have a lot of heart. They also are the only two films where Bukowski's words are the key element, and that should be savoured.

BARFLY is based on Bukowski's life in his 20s and 30s, told through his alter-ego Hank Chinaski. Hank is a skid-row drunk, writing poems when he can and bumming jobs elsewhere, but mostly drinking and getting into scraps in a grimy bar. In BARFLY, he meets Wanda there - a crazy yet beautiful drunk. In real life, it was Jane - a crazy and less beautiful drunk. Wanda (as with Jane) is self-destructive... so much so even Hank looks increasingly sane.

The criticisms of BARFLY fit into two camps. The first lot of folks don't like Mickey Rourke, and his mannered performance. He seems less suave and literate as readers imagined Bukowski to be. The second lot of folks don't like the female characters in the movie - Wanda and Tully. Wanda is too pretty to seem a skid-row drunk, while Tully is an artsy-fartsy drag.

I mostly agree with the second group of folks, but I don't think the women characters damage the movie too much. Faye Dunaway (Wanda) throws herself into things. She's rarely likeable (aside from a good scene where she bumps into an old man), but she remains interesting. And while Tully falls into too much self-repulsion ("Even the upper classes suffer too"), she's a good counterfoil to Hank. It helps justify why he sees her life as "a cage with golden bars". I also don't think the movie is sexist, an accusation often thrown at Bukowski's writing. Even in WOMEN, Bukowski reproaches himself (albeit after 160 pages) and starts to question his motives. The Hank in BARFLY even breaks down a door to try and stop a guy beating on his wife... only for her to tell him she enjoys it.

As for Mickey Rourke's performance, you should find it damn interesting. It doesn't matter whether this is exactly like Bukowski. Rourke's Hank is fascinating. From the rolling walk, to the slurred voice, to the moments he sparks into life when someone is trying to put him down. The verbal and physical fighting with his stupid barman Eddie (Frank Stallone... really good) are great. Hank is always the underdog, which makes it all the more satisfying when he beats up Eddie in front of Eddie's fanclub. And Eddie's excuse that he's got "a cold" is hilarious.

But the true strength of BARFLY is the dialogue. It's often hilarious:
"Nobody in this neighborhood can swallow paste like I can."
"I'll suck you so hard I'll make your asshole rumble like a volcano."
Yet sometimes it's also poetic:
"Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth."
"This is a world where everybody's gotta do something. Y'know, somebody laid down this rule that everybody's gotta do something, they gotta be something. You know, a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher, all that.... Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things that I don't wanna do. All the things that I don't wanna be."

I still don't know what people are looking for with BARFLY that switches them off so much. No movie can be POST OFFICE or FACTOTUM. It has to be a shortened version, it has to be a little bastardised to fit the Classical Hollywood Narrative and all that. But what comes out of BARFLY are a lot of great lines, an interesting central performance, and - if you forgive a few minor problems - a superb one-of-a-kind movie. And aside from THE BUKOWSKI TAPES, it's the closest you'll ever get to seeing Bukowski's stories come to life.

THE BUKOWSKI TAPES were made in the build-up to BARFLY. Barbet Schroeder filmed interviews with Bukowski to get a sense of the man. The documentary is stretched over two DVDs and four hours. You'll need a few breaks throughout (and a rest from the same damn piano bit that introduces each part) and the documentary tends to lull you into sleep, but it's a good watch.

THE BUKOWSKI TAPES are less showy than BARFLY. We see Bukowski go back to his childhood home, revisiting the lawn from HAM ON RYE where he would be beaten for not cutting "the hairs" on the lawn. We see the toilet where he was thrashed with a razor strop. The best passages are when he's croakily talking about Jane. There's a real sense he still loves her, more than anyone since, despite all the heartache at the time. The human side is revealed and it's a fascinating view.

You also see Bukowski's darker side, lashing out at Linda Lee Bukowski when she (mildly) contradicts him. He levels some kicks at her, and shouts he'll get a "Jewish lawyer" to kick her out of the place. Even though Linda Lee has always seemed a bit of a leech, it's good to see the asshole side of Bukowski. The hero-worship of Bukowski needs knocks like this. There's also that part in BORN INTO THIS where we see Bukowski nervous and unsure... anxiously waiting at the window for Cupcakes to appear. But if you look hard enough, that's in the novels too. People obsess over the tough guy persona, but the other side is there. Those moments are what lift his work above too many Bukowski-ites where EVERYTHING is confident.

I actually remain largely disinterested in what writers are really like. I didn't care much for Howard Sounes' biography of Bukowski, where he fixates on whether what Bukowski wrote was an exact recreation of actual events. The point of great confessional literature is to hit the entertaining and insightful side of events, rather than exact events. Exact events are often too dull, too drawn out.

Like BARFLY, I'm very happy to go with Bukowski's version of things. He isn't the superhero people sometimes make him out to be, but he is damn skilled at being interesting. And, while BARFLY and THE BUKOWSKI TAPES aren't perfect, they're both immensely interesting. I highly recommend both of 'em.

Review by Steve Hussy