Beyond "Barfly"; John Dullaghan Shows a Complex Portrait of Bukowski
by Brandon Judell
In Charles Bukowski's classic 1972 collection of short stories, "Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness," the President of the United States is kidnapped, and his brain is switched with Adolf Hitler's. His revamped body is then returned to the White House. As for the brain in the Führer's wizened torso, it finds itself in an insane asylum, going around daily reading newspapers and telling smirking people he's the real President.
Bukowski, the hard-drinking, pockmarked, sexually compulsive literary raconteur was taking on Nixon back then. His story though would explain the Bush of today. Like great parables, his don't date. Neither do his tales of sex. Take the man who finds himself shrunk to dildo-size so he could finally satisfy a woman. Every gal's dream? But it's the life that Barbet Schroeder made into "Barfly" (1987) that continues to fascinate.
Understandably, John Dullaghan, after 15 years in the advertising industry, has taken on the late legendary drunk who died in '94. The result is a satisfying, often raucous, documentary that only now and gets too reverential. Is Bukowski really a modern Whitman?
With a finesse of sorts, Dullaghan has gathered interviews from Bukowski's wife, daughter, girlfriends, and post-office coworkers. There are also tributes from Sean Penn, Bono, and Harry Dean Stanton, plus old footage from European TV broadcasts and from Barbet Schroeder's stockpile when he himself considered making a documentary on Bukowski. The best though is Bukowski on Bukowski: "When I write, I'm the hero of my shit."
The following is a coast-to-coast chat with Dullaghan, who lives with his family in Southern California. Magnolia Pictures releases "Bukowski: Born Into This" on Friday.
iW: Professor Barry Wallenstein, a major poetry force in Manhattan, was telling me the other day he found Bukowski's verse boring. I countered saying, "Try reading his short stories." But Wallenstein is not alone in his distaste. So do you find Bukowski is a highly acquired taste?
Dullaghan: Have you seen "Glengarry Glen Ross"?
Dullaghan: That was one of Bukowski's favorite films. It's one of my favorite films. I think it's brilliant. But it ain't for everybody. I've run into people who just can't watch it. It makes them too uncomfortable. It's got harsh language. It's violent subject matter. Like emotionally violent, you know. It's doesn't skip down the middle of the road. It's a very intense film, and Bukowski is the same way. Either you love him or you really don't love him.
Anybody that's controversial is going to excite extreme reactions either way, and I think he was very uncensored. He was out there. So the people who relate to him generally I find have life stories similar to his: the same issues. And he reflects them back to themselves. So for those people into him, they really, really go for him, and those that don't, never will.
Academia is a different style. It comes from a different place generally. Bukowski came from the streets and the gutters, and he didn't really care for academia. So there are professors out there who love him, who really relate to him, but there's this poet Dan Gioia. He's out here on the West Coast. H's a very conservative guy. I think Bush hired him to be the poetry czar or something. He doesn't care for Bukowski. Well, he wouldn't. He's not cut out of that mold at all.
One of the comments I hear again and again is "you know, I really didn't care for Bukowski. I really didn't want to see the film. I was dragged here. But boy, I kind of like him, and I respect him, and boy, his stuff is pretty damn good."
I hear that a lot, and I created the film not just for Bukowski fanatics. They're going to like whatever you put out there. But I tried to make it general and accessible to people who may have just heard the name. Maybe they saw "Barfly." Maybe they didn't care for "Barfly," but I tried to give them something that everybody could kind of hook into. And if you don't like Bukowski by the end of the movie, at least you understand where he came from, and you understand where he came from as an artist.
iW: Were there a few folk who knew Bukowski who didn't want to be filmed, or did everyone open their arms up to you?
Dullaghan: People were really, really cooperative. There were just a few isolated cases. I was in Germany, and there were some innkeepers there. I guess Bukowski had gone over there in 1978 and just torn up this hotel. Really. I approached them. This was 30 years later now, and they yelled at me and told me to get off their property. I don't know exactly what they were saying, but I got the sense of it.
iW: "Du bist ein Arschloch."
Dullaghan: What is that?
iW: It means "You are an asshole."
Dullaghan: I'm sure that was part of it.
iW: That's been yelled at me quite a few times in Berlin.
Dullaghan: So Bukowski left quite an impression with them. (Laughs) And then, just last week, I didn't visit Bukowski's home for the film. I didn't really feel a need to. We had it on Barbet's tape. But the L.A. Times wanted me to do an article where I visited Bukowski's spots. This tells you something about Bukowski's readers.
I went to his childhood home on Longwood Avenue. It's in a pretty bad part of town now, and there are bars on the windows, and it really looks like a crack house. The old guy who lives there wasn't home, but as we were shooting, he came by and screamed and kicked us off his property. He was yelling, "You goddamn Bukowski people." Charles' fans come by and just walk through his backyard and take pictures. They just kind of treat the house as if it were their own. They come from all over the world. And by this point, this guy's really pissed off so we let him alone. I just said, "Hey, man! Fine." I kind of felt sorry for the guy.
Those were the only two incidents where I was turned away, but other than that, people were really, really generous. And while I lacked the experience of a filmmaker, I was passionate about what I was doing, and I was serious about it. I wanted to do the best job I could. They responded to that. So people were really cool. And they responded to that so people were really cool.
iW: I don't know you. I don't even know how you look, but one gets the sense from you having been in advertising for years, from working on Apple ads, etc., from you having a wife and children, and from your voice not sounding as if it's been destroyed by the abuse of cigarettes and beer that Bukowski was totally the opposite of you. You're clean; he was filthy. You are responsible; he wasn't. Is this film a result of opposites attracting each other or is there bum inside you somewhere?
Dullaghan: I wouldn't call it "a bum inside." (Laughs) I like that but I share much of what Bukowski experienced in his life. In other words, I do have addictions and alcoholism running through my family so I understand that. I'm sure you do, too. Anybody who's artistic or in the arts on any level, they know what it feels like to not be accepted, to be an outsider.
Your parents never can really fully understand you. I think in most cases if you're in a creative world, no one's ever really going to get you. And your teachers aren't. So there's the feeling of being an outsider there. And then you get angry because of that.
So there are a lot of the emotions that Bukowski went through I certainly understand. But I think that there's a reason that I've gravitated towards him than T.S. Eliot, for example. Two different wastelands approached in different ways maybe.
Yeah, I think there was sort of that gutter side to him. It's in my family, and I've run into some of that earlier in my life. But that's not what I respond to in his work. What I respond to is the wisdom he has. The perspective he has. The compassion. The ability to see beyond the surface. That's what I really admire in him. So while I understand that other part, that darker part, it's my shadow side perhaps.
iW: And your wife hopes you keep that "shadow side" checked.
Dullaghan: (Laughs) I really respond to the "other," and that's why I made the film. If Bukowski was just about sex and violence... You could get there anywhere. But it's that other thing. It's what he brings to his work that makes him special, that's going to make him endure.
iW: Do you already have another project in the works? Or are you waiting for your accolades to come out on this one first?
Dullaghan: I really haven't been able to pursue anything. I'm a one-man show here. It's all that I can do just to get this thing into the theaters. Yeah, I'm going to definitely pursue other things. The people like Errol Morris and Al Maysles, they're able to make it work... Errol Morris is in the ad world. He's a famous advertising director. I'd like to keep my hands in the corporate world, but then be able to do the kind of documentary work that I would like.