In the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This (2003), we meet the real Charles Bukowski, and he is a bit more of an aggressive and sinister presence than his filmic counterpart Henry Chinaski. But the same wit and humanism are there also, along with a genial and engaged perception of human weakness. We see Bukowski, a sensation in the literary scene by the early 70s, demanding wine and threatening the audience in San Francisco, drunkenly musing about life in a variety of time periods, and being described by fellow writers, artists, and others who knew him, including Sean Penn and Tom Waits, as they reminisce about his violent and inebriated exploits.
There are black and white scenes from an earlier documentary, Bukowski (1973), as well as interviews with the director of that film, Taylor Hackford. As always, as a persuasive counterpoint to all the debauchery, we get the blunt eloquence of Bukowski himself, as he reads in voiceover from his poem Dinosauria, We over footage of the poet wandering around the streets of his beloved city:
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
Born like this
One needs only witness how much inflection, threat and beauty the poet infuses these words with, especially the last three lines, to realize not only Bukowski's talent, but to what extent writing comes alive and gains weight when read or performed.
Sylvia (2003), also dominated by a larger than life personality, is a film ripe with the possibility of descending into melodrama. After all, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath's life has often been construed as a grand, tragic melodrama itself, into which much debate about sexism within marriage, and the elusive nature of despair, can be read. And, sure enough, the script falls into this trap. We get the signature scenes, drawn in broad strokes: Sylvia and her husband-to-be, poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), seeing each other across a crowded room at a dance in graduate school; floridly reciting poetry to each other during their courtship; and Sylvia laboring selflessly for the sake of her handsome and popular husband's career, while living in his shadow.
One gets the sense this is more the way we imagine great poets behave than the way they really do, and the performances are mannered while being simultaneously empty. Things are not helped by the fact that everyone Ted meets early in the film alludes secretly to Sylvia's mental illness in an overdone, almost Hitchcockian way. The film consists of Sylvia's descent towards suicide and, while competent, it is no more than that.
One is better off reading the poet's novel The Bell Jar for a better comprehension of the layers of her depression; the novel was also made into a film in 1979 of the same name, starring Marilyn Hassett and Julie Harris.
Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), the first cinematic portrayal of "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is likewise an interesting failure. The modus operandi of gonzo journalism, in which a writer inserts himself into the events he is detailing and becomes part of the story himself, is a mixture of personality and historical details. And personality is the main thing on display here: in Thompson's case, it is that of a slightly deranged, drug-addled, gun-crazy maniac who nevertheless, like Bukowski, is capable of brilliant observation.
In between the box office smashes Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), Bill Murray took a foray into the too bizarre with his portrayal of Thompson, an off-kilter miasma of misdirection and humorous mumbling, like Carl the Groundskeeper from Caddyshack with political obsessions and literary acumen. As the legend goes, Thompson was so disenchanted by the buffoonery of Murray that for a time he planned to actually have him killed.
Another stab at capturing the insanity of Thompson is had in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), with much better, but still mixed, results. Johnny Depp, in one of his many idiosyncratic, precise performances, still mumbles a good deal, but also manages to convey the lost-in-the-funhouse sensibility that was integral to both Thompson and the public consciousness in the early 70s. Instead of just coming across as bewildering, Depp communicates how bewildered Thompson himself feels in the midst of the political and social turmoil of the Vietnam era, and this makes the difference. (Thompson was actually pleased with Depp's portrayal, and they became friendly in real life.)
A maddening inscrutability is key to Thompson's public and literary personas, but in this version we understand that this characteristic is a reflection of the madness and disillusionment Thompson feels around him - when idealism dies, it is an ugly death. Thompson, in the guise of alter-ego Raoul Duke, and his sidekick Dr. Gonzo, here played with complementary inscrutability by an actor practiced at that art, Benicio Del Toro, travel under the influence of many substances to cover a motorcycle race and end the trip at an anti-drug conference held in Las Vegas. Terry Gilliam, who explored the fantastic in such films as Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1986), brings a wealth of special effects to bear in fleshing out the delirious, psychedelic visions of Duke and Dr. Gonzo, especially effective in a scene in which Duke finds himself patronizing a bar along with giant lizards. But these effects, on which the film depends too much, are merely a set-up for those moments when Raoul reflects on the deeper situation the drug trips symbolize.
The highpoint of the film comes when Depp intones Thompson's famous "wave speech," that he has rightly called the "finest thing" he ever wrote: "We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." As with Bukowski, this kind of beautiful clarity, summarizing the death-knell of the 60s dream that rang in the excess of the succeeding decade, gives resonance to all the self-indulgence and paranoia that surrounds it.
Bookmark/Search this post with: