R for most of the reasons that you can think of. The most obvious R-rating comes from the sheer despair brought about by almost daring alcoholism. But then from there, it spirals into this world of sexuality, vulgarity, vice, language, vomit, and blood. There's nothing pleasant about any of these things. This is the heroic alcoholism of Charles Bukowski. It blends the urban whispers of the nobility with leaving the system while embracing the sadness that comes with that lifestyle. R.
DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder
And with that...I started taking requests. The obsessed, dominant part of my brain screams at me for not just skipping over this one so I can get every Academy Award nominee up before the actual Academy Awards happen. But then I realized, these movies would be largely ignored and that's no good. By the way, this is not an easy movie to get a hold of. It's been out of print for as long as I can remember in the United States. I had to track down a Korean copy that was all regions. I know, it's a big red flag about the legality of the movie, but the copy seems pretty darned legit. The things I do for "all my friends!"
By the way, this blog will become significantly more entertaining to read / write if you read Barfly as an adverb.
I had a weird obsession about this movie a little over a decade ago. Like, it blew my mind. I think that's what post-college is supposed to be. It's supposed to be this time where you discover Charles Bukowski and feel like you want to stick it to society. I didn't know much about Bukowski shy of his name and his reputation. But I watched Barfly and it was eye-opening. There was this sexiness to misery that I had never really known before. Henry, a thinly veiled avatar for Bukowski himself, leads an epically awful life that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, To call him an alcoholic is downplaying the whole thing. He wears his alcoholism like a warm blanket. The idea of eliminating this vice from his life would be abhorrent. He revels in the misery that surrounds him. He compares functionality and finances as being in a "golden cage". (I'll discuss this imagery later. Possibly indirectly. Again, these blogs get a single pass and then I'm done. I got too much to do.) For a guy in his twenties, who just spent college sleeping on a futon and eating $1.00 cheeseburgers four days a week, I got it. At least, I thought I did. I lead a very comfortable life and I pretended, at the time, that I had it rough. For all of the head wounds that Henry receives, there was something attractive at being someone who never had to abide by society's rules. This movie mesmerized me. It was new and it was different and I wanted everyone to know that I liked Barfly.
But being out of print, I never really had a chance to watch the movie again until recently when I got the request. Luckily, there was the Korean print. You should see the adorable little sticker I got on the front of it from the guy who sent it to me. He also assured me that this was a legal copy (which, to his credit, a lot of this disc looks legal). And it is now from the perspective of someone who is near 40 and well established in his career that Barfly reads as something very different to me. Part of me is in love with the establishment. Mind you, a lot of me wants to tear down capitalism with every breath I take. A foot away from me sits a copy of Nate Powell's new graphic novel, Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest. The anti-establishment thread runs through me deeply. But it also paints the world of Charles Bukowski as incredibly immature. I'm not going to lie: I found this movie that I used to love hard to endure at times. It probably didn't age well with me and I encourage those people who still love this movie to continue loving it.
A lot of this spin started when I read a book of poetry from a Bukowski knockoff. I picked the book because of the title and the cover. But as I read it, I realized there's something very infantile about the way that Bukowski views the world. Barfly and Bukowski (coming from a guy who only writes a blog and has a novel half done that he's afraid to finish) are about justification. It always has a bit of "She doth protest too much" about the whole life of a wino. The glorification of misery ignores the notion that this is a story of misery. Henry and Wanda live these lives where they don't really have a sense of self. To Bukowski's credit, I think he's aware of this. Their humanity has been stripped down to this need for selfishness and vice. Wanda warns Henry that she will leave with any man who has a fifth of liquor available. Henry almost seems pleased with this horrific confession because it reads almost like a justification of his lifestyle. It's only when Wanda leaves with Eddie, the personification of all the things he finds wrong with the world, that he becomes truly upset at the confession that Wanda offers him.
And I always found the story sexy because the movie focuses on Henry. Henry brings all of the misery upon himself. He revels at being a big fish in the scummiest pond imaginable. He doesn't mind the beatings that occasionally come his way because he will get cheers one out of a hundred times when he gets lucky enough to win / go into a fight with a meal ahead of time. But the nearly 40 version of me watches the movie through Wanda's eyes. Wanda may be the most telling bastion for the male gaze imaginable. We assume that Wanda is a paramour for Henry because she is the love interest. We equate them as equals because it is easier to do so. But Wanda is hurting way more than Henry. Henry gets to enjoy this spiral into misery. But Wanda seems truly sad. She is used for her body. She seems traumatized and the alcohol reads as a way to escape that trauma that chases her wherever she goes. Henry, with his intentional abandon of society's rules, holds no element of society within him. He almost voluntarily blows a perfectly good interview because that's the kind of person he is. But Wanda understands that there's things that people need to do. While I wouldn't ever label her a responsible human being, she does understand that responsibilities exist devoid of supervision. She knows how to dress herself up and fake it for the sake of survival.
Because of the slight juxtaposition between Henry and Wanda, Henry really reads as scummier than Bukowski intends for him to be. He leeches off of society, ignoring the small kindnesses that allow him to be enabled in his lifestyle. Henry doesn't have to sleep with people he doesn't want to for a fifth. He'd rather just keep walking the streets until booze appears. Because he is a male extrovert with a scripted personality, he is allowed to only suffer minor indignities to continue his way through the world of vice. Wanda, however, must completely humiliate herself. The fact that she sleeps with Eddie is almost a commentary on that moment. Bukowski wrote that scene to make Henry a more sympathetic character. What it really does is paint a contrast for Wanda. Wanda has to sleep with guys like Eddie to maintain her alcoholism. Henry just has to take a punch, which he morbidly seems to enjoy.
There's also this metacontext that really bothers me about Barfly as a whole. Charles Bukowski wrote a coherent script. The fact that this movie exists kind of reads like the whole concept of Bukowski, the legend, is a façade. Bukowski was a poet. If he was anything like Henry, his poetry would stay written in a secret notebook, occasionally being sold off piecemeal for a little scratch. But he's a poet. It seems like a feature length film is almost the definition of the establishment. I'm not saying cinema is part of the establishment. Many movies are artistic attacks on the man and I love that stuff. I'm just saying that changing media seems like this isn't from the soul or a message to society. Instead, it kind of reads like cementing the mythology of the great Charles Bukowski into something that may be entirely artificial. Again, I don't know Charles Bukowski on a personal level. Maybe this was a passion project for him. But a lot of it reads like he's hitting the highlights of a stereotype.
To give Bukowski more credit than I have been so far allowing, he is the progenitor of this archetype. Henry isn't W.C. Fields, where his alcoholism is adorable. To call what he does as "immature" like I've been implying is unfair. When you start the archetype, that makes you somewhat special. Yeah, culture has turned the Bukowski archetype into a cliché, but it isn't an archetype if you are the first one doing it. Embracing the grotesque is now commonplace, but Bukowski's method of elevating depression is not only novel, but it was compelling. There's a reason that my 20s were about Bukowski's counter-culturalism. It's good that a movie like Barfly exists because this story needed to be told. Yeah, it doesn't hit hard in my 30s as it did in my 20s and I tend to be flippant and sardonic about the whole thing. But I also acknowledge that Bukowski is commenting on a culture that doesn't get the attention it deserves. He takes the common man mythos of Arthur Miller and perverts it, which is great.
And, at the end of the day, I still kind of enjoyed it. Yeah, it wasn't the slam dunk that I've associated with my rebellious side. But it is still a solid movie overall.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.