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Review: 'You Never Really Had It: An Evening With Charles Bukowski' Recalls Poet's Gruff Genius

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 7, 2020
'You Never Had It — An Evening with Charles Bukowski'
'You Never Had It — An Evening with Charles Bukowski'  

American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was something of an outlier even in his success. A gruff, driving, no-rent stylist, Bukowski falls somewhere near — but not comfortably within — the ranks of other writers of the same general tone and oeuvre. Breece D'J Pancake might come to mind when reading Bukowski, though Pancake is more sophisticated; the beat writers (Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, even William S. Burroughs) might seem to belong to the same overall sensibility; Henry Miller, too, could run with this pack. If you were to look for a musical equivalent you might settle on early Tom Waits. And yet, Bukowski stands apart even from these rarefied talents.

Matteo Borgardt's "You Never Had It — An Evening with Charles Bukowski" honors Bukowski's unique sensibilities. Originally recorded in 1981 on videotape by an Italian journalist — Silvia Bizio, who introduces the film in additional footage taken in 2016 — this documentary was intended for Italian television, but the footage was never used. You can kind of see why - though from today's vantage, the film does possess a nostalgic appreciation for Bukowski's gruff charm.

The tapes sat in a box for decades — around nine hours' worth, given Bizio's recollection that she arrived at Bukowski's home in San Pedro, California, at around 4:00 in the afternoon for what was going to be an hour or two of conversation, but she and her crew didn't leave until one o'clock the next morning. In between times there was a lot of conversation, a lot of smoking, and a lot of wine.

Bukowski shows his visitors around his house, taking them into the room where he works on his writing with the words, "This is where I fuck my soul." Art and sex twine together throughout the conversation, with Bukowski freely offering anecdotes about his escapades but also lamenting a commercial focus on sex that, he feels, takes away from the purity of his written expression. Even in his own life, the poet reveals, he had a long period of about a decade in which he was celibate — by choice, he implies, preferring to focus on his craft rather than indulge in carnal pleasures.

Under Bizio's gentle probing, Bukowski throws out various not-quite-convincing — if not downright trite — insights: Sentiments need not all be expressed, even to one's lover; Hemingway is best read when one is young; Henry Miller is a tease because he begins a story on the level of the street (which was more or less Bukowski's own milieu), but then flies off into hazy philosophical ruminations that Bukowski finds irritating; and, of course, writers are horrible people best left to their work rather than approached for any sort of social connection. his pronouncements come across the way Bukowski himself describes his writing process - executed without a lot of thought - but from time to time the writer, a glint in his eye, sneaks in a thought so sly, or provocative, or profound that the viewer snaps to attention.

Bukowski's words are underscored with an ambient musical soundtrack by Eric Cannata, Aidin Sadeghi, Francois Comtois, and Josh Stein. The score's Brian Eno-like airiness, while sometimes poignant, lends the doc an air of sadness; Bukowski, holding forth as he puffs and quaffs away, frequently comes across as washed up and burned out. A more sprightly score might have goosed the writer's naturally understated glee and his sense of mischief, especially when Bukowski offers winking opinions on why his live-in girlfriend (and, later on, his wife) Linda Lee Beighle shouldn't use profanity (even though he, himself, curses like a sailor) and what his attitudes are around the sharing of sexual pleasure: "If there's any left over," he confides at one point, "they can have that — and sometimes it's three of four seconds." Then, he adds, he's usually anxious to get back to more pressing business, like watching "The Tonight Show."

Still, there are moments when the chatter and the music combine for dazzling moments when it's possible to remember why Bukowski was regarded as a kind of genius, his directness and borderline crudity — downright crudity, actually, which as rescued by a poetic disposition — cutting to the heart of quotidian matters. Explaining this talent, Bukowski credits his father who, he claims, beat him several times weekly throughout his childhood. Calling the thrashings "very good literary training," Bukowski reckons that under such a regimen of abuse, "you have all the pretense beat out of you."

Much of the film, while possessing the rough-edged charm that Bukowski personified, feels like it's captured from in-between moments, and perhaps that's the point: An atmosphere of aimless nighttime conversation prevails. It's no wonder that this footage was never used for anything back in the day; audiences would have wanted something sharper, a narrative that feels more object oriented.

More than a quarter-century after Bukowski's death, this recovered interview feels like a find revisitation, and a reminder of the things you might remember from reading his work in your own youth — the sense of a tender, even pure, heart armoring itself against a corrupt world with truthfulness, but also a fine sense of caricature. (If, at one point, Bukowski complains about the image people have of him as being an unrestrained wild man of dissolute energies and uncertain civility, it's certainly an image he seemed happy to project and encourage.)

At only 53 minutes (including Silvia Bizio's modern-day introduction), the film feels like en essential distillation of that marathon night of drinking and conversation. Borgardt shapes and coaxes message and meaning from the footage by using voiceover of Bukowski reading his own work, as well as adding contemporary Super8 footage of Los Angeles — a landscape of humanity that even Bukowski might have found shocking, given the homeless encampments that the camera observes. The writer's own street-level sensibilities (together with his overtly sexist views) belong to another time, and upon reflection it's uncertain as to which era — Bukowski's, or our own — is more in need of enlightenment. It's this notion that seems to inform the film's editing and the placement, at the end, of the poem that lends the documentary its title.

Whatever else one might say about Bukowski, he knew his task was to say something, and he followed that task to the places it took him, extreme as they might have been. In this instance, we — and Silvia Bizio — are his fortunate witnesses.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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