Sometimes Appellate Judge Dan Mancini just has to pee in the sink.
I'm on my porch 'cause I lost my house key.
-- The Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Mellowship Slinky in B Major"
I first read Charles Bukowski as a freshman in college when a buddy shoplifted Factotum, Bukowski's novel about menial, dead-end jobs. Bukowski may be a better poet than prosaist, but my fondest memory of reading him is that introduction to his work. Lying on the single bed in my dorm room, I laughed until it hurt at a vignette in which Bukowski's literary doppelgänger, Henry Chinaski, working as a nighttime janitor, takes a crap in his workplace john, realizes there's no toilet paper handy, uses his own jockeys to wipe himself, then overflows the toilet trying to flush. It sounds crass and stupid, I know, like a gross-out set piece from one of those straight-to-video American Pie sequels Eugene Levy slums in when he's not starring in Christopher Guest movies. But context is everything. Crass humor is a different animal in Bukowski's literary world. In his universe, depravity is the natural state of humanity. Displays of social niceties are pathetic pretenses meant to keep the nihilistic truth from violating the comfortably zoned-out existences of the walking dead who work day jobs, suffer unsatisfying marriages, and spawn children who hate them. This weird blend of silliness and biting bohemian insight is what made Bukowski mandatory reading for undergraduates when I was in college, even though he didn't appear on any class syllabi.
From 1980 to 1986, Bukowski and director Barbet Schroeder (Koko: A Talking Gorilla) worked together developing Barfly, a film about the picaresque adventures of Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke (Sin City)—his alcohol-fueled romance with Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway, Network), and eventual discovery by literary agent Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige, Star Trek: First Contact). Schroeder found his evenings of drinking and talking with Bukowski so energizing, fascinating, and just plain fun that he assembled a small crew to videotape a handful of their sessions. The result was The Charles Bukowski Tapes, a whopping four hours of the author's rambling, storytelling, philosophizing, and shooting the breeze. These are edited by Schroeder into 52 segments, each with a title card describing the topic on which Bukowski pontificates.
DVD is the perfect format for presenting Schroeder's casual experiment as the segments—spread evenly across two discs—are conveniently indexed, allowing the viewer to jump around to various topics. Want to hear Bukowski's thoughts on women's legs? Pop in Disc Two and select Chapter 45. Curious why Bukowski, an avowed drunk, was down on marijuana? Dial up "Drugs versus Alcohol" on Disc One. Want to know the author's secret path to success? Check out "The Masses Are Always Wrong," also on Disc One. The varied topics are punctuated by Bukowski's frequent diatribes against comfortable bourgeois life, and his pervasive misanthropy. Two refrains echo throughout the monologues: that Bukowski prefers the company of whores, pimps, drunks, and crooks because they're more real; and that he plain hates people (which seems odd considering how much fun he appears to have with Schroeder and his crew). What comes across in spades is the weird intersection of true literary talent and juvenility that made Bukowski Bukowski. One moment he muses comically on the stultifying restrictions of monogamy and marriage; the next he lashes out violently against girlfriend and future wife Linda Lee Beighle, accusing her of cheating on him. The Charles Bukowski Tapes makes it abundantly clear that Henry Chinaski—alternately hilarious, frightening, loathsome, pathetic, and endearing—is less literary construct than honest to goodness baring of Bukowski's soul.
Visually speaking, The Charles Bukowski Tapes is a simple affair. Schroeder's static camera is trained on Bukowski, who slouches in a chair, pot-bellied, gangly-limbed, hair gassed back, face pocked with acne scars and dominated by the bulbous, veiny nose of alcoholics. Bukowski drinks and talks and talks and drinks. Schroeder shot with what constituted high-end video equipment in the early- to mid-80s. Needless to say, it's a far cry from hi-def. The full frame image lacks depth, but is surprisingly detailed. Depending on the lighting, colors can be muted or overblown, but they're always true to the source. In creating this transfer, Ryko has delicately handled problematic materials. To their credit they didn't exacerbate the existing flaws. You'll find no digital artifacts like pixilation, combing, or haloing from excessive edge enhancement. Considering The Chares Bukowski Tapes is more about substance than style, the limited video quality isn't a problem.
On the supplements front, the two-disc set comes with a 36-page insert booklet with two essays and a lengthy interview of Bukowski reprinted from Film Comment. There are no onboard extras with the exception of a separate index that allows you to jump to segments in which Bukowski reads his own poety. There are seven poems on each disc.
The Charles Bukowski Tapes is a winner for fans of Bukowski, or anyone who likes to hear a drunk ramble brilliantly for four hours. Crack a beer or twelve and check it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ryko Disc
• Essay by Director Barbet Schroeder
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