Judge Gordon Sullivan isn't a poet, but he likes wine and a good angry rant now and then.
The Uncut Versions of the Last 2 Readings.
T.S. Eliot is probably the archetypal poet of the twentieth century. He's famous for writing dense, learned poems that capture the chaos and dis-ease in the wake of World War I. In one of his poems he said the purpose of speech was to "purify the dialect of the tribe," and much of the poetry that followed in his wake did just that. If T.S. Eliot is the angel of poetry shining a light on the twentieth century, then surely Charles Bukowski is the dark devil demonstrating our collective underbelly in that tumultuous century. Emphatically parochial (rarely venturing outside Los Angeles for material) and capable, it seemed, of only writing in a voice inflected by the language of a tough, working-class drunk, Charles Bukowski was in no way out to purify. As such, he's one of the most polarizing poets in our culture. Most academics (and other poets for that matter) ignore him, while his books sell copies regularly.
If we're honest, though, if Bukowski is famous, it's not so much for his writing as it is his lifestyle. He started out poor, quit a job to write at the urging of an editor, and lived a broke-down, wine-drenched existence until his death. He bedded countless women, wrote a Hollywood screenplay (Barfly), and was unrepentantly vulgar. Before his book sales generated enough income to keep him in beer and typewriter ribbons, Bukowski went 'round the poetry circuit, giving readings that often involved gallons of wine and angry rants in between poems. His final two appearances, one national, one international, at poetry readings (fourteen years before his death) are gathered here in Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother.
The first of these readings was in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1979, and the second in Redondo Beach, California, in 1980. They've been released separately. The first was released as There's Gonna Be a God Damn Riot in Here! and the second as The Last Straw.
Since both of these readings were previously released, why should a good Bukowski fan pick up this new set? Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that those two previous DVDs were edited to avoid duplicate poems. I have no idea why anyone would have done that (except to cash in with a set like this later), but those omissions have been rectified here. We get both shows completely unedited on their separate discs. The second reason for fans to pick this set up is the new featurettes. When Bukowski's papers were donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, they hosted a celebration that included readings, reminisces, and speakers. These are included, along with interviews, in "Bukowski at Huntington." Then there's an interview with the director of the Bukowski documentary Born Into This, including clips of some of the famous readings in that film. We also get a series of scenes from a play called Love, Bukowski. From the previous stand-alone discs we get a short documentary on the twenty-fifth anniversary screening of the Vancouver show, a short piece on the show's producers, and some notes from Bukowski in his own hand.
These shows were videotaped, under poor lighting conditions, so don't expect much in the transfer department. The Vancouver show looks the best, but that's not say much—both shows look as if they've been sourced from VHS, including some vertical roll here and there. However, the solid sound ensures that Bukowski is audible throughout, and it's even possible to make out most of the comments the crowd hurls Hank's way. It's not a pristine recording by any stretch, but the grit suits the mood of a Bukowski reading.
As for the readings, they're as polarizing as the poetry. Bukowski sits alone on and drinks his way through a couple dozen poems for each event. He fields occasional comments from the crowd. If you're so inclined you can see him as charming, witty, and confident. Alternatively, you can see him as drunk, boorish, and full of himself. Those with a disposition to appreciate Bukowski's persona will see his genius on display, while those who think he's a womanizing jerk will have that confirmed as well. His reading style is a bit odd: not quite monotone but not quite his normal speaking voice. Luckily, this DVD allows the viewer to select individual poems in addition to watching the whole thing straight through.
This DVD is unlikely to win Bukowski any new fans, but for the faithful it's probably worth double dipping for the unedited versions of these shows and the new special features. This disc is especially recommended to those who might be familiar with Bukowski's writing but unfamiliar with his voice and reading style. He's in fine form for these last two shows, and it's nice that fans have them both here in one tidy package.
Call him what you will, but Charles Bukowski and One Tough Mother are not guilty.
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