Soiled plaid slacks
Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Produced by Tom Luddy, Fred Roos, and Barbet Schroeder. Written by Charles Bukowski. Cinematography by Robby Müller. With Mickey Rourke (Henry Chinaski), Faye Dunaway (Wanda Wilcox), Alice Krige (Tolly Soreson), Jack Nance (detective), J.C. Quinn (Jim), Frank Stallone (Eddie). Released in 1987.
Perhaps a little of both. Four years later, Barfly was Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical account of a full-time lush and back-alley brawler. The ‘semi’ refers to when he’s propped up as a charismatic ladies man and poet laureate in waiting. The benefit of casting Mickey Rourke — whose punchy élan endears the black eye, greasy hair and probable b.o. — substantiates an attraction for some women, but Barfly shortchanges its own assertions to the bard’s brilliance. Fortunately, we’re subjected to his soporific prose in sparsely narrated digressions.
Swaggering through his favorite haunt, a bucket of blood called The Golden Horn, Rourke’s Henry Chinaski is the alcoholic dream of bottomless drinking without the pesky aftereffects of blackout, DT’s or jail. Yes, this is a comedy. Always game for sparring with barkeep Frank Stallone (a foe who represents obviousness), comfortable in poverty (penniless is ‘back to normal’), Henry’s hailed as a brilliant author (classic skid row romanticism) and, despite stalled hygiene, manages to attract women of a league with Alice Krige and Faye Dunaway (in her best performance since Network). Rolling his shoulders and lifting his jaw in slouched grandiosity, Rourke works from Brando’s catalog of underlined gestures, tics and sighs, yet it’s difficult to imagine another actor committing the role with such wobbling panache.
To ALL my FRIENDS!
Schroeder wasn’t the first filmmaker to see the potential in Bukowski. There were earlier short student films, and director Marco Ferreri made the barely-released Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), which suffered the anomaly of casting an inherently urbane Ben Gazzara in a role better suited to late-period Sterling Hayden or Michael J. Pollard. But Barfly was the mainstream’s first dose of outré Los Angeles fleapit sleaze, and Schroeder’s American debut. (Legend has it he threatened to saw off his finger if Canon Pictures wouldn’t bankroll the project.) Its soft lighting barely concealing jaundice, the film taps into a very private and arcane Eden. It has several unbelievably bad supporting performances (some of the cast literally wandered in off the street), and is often dramatically challenged. But as the camera glides through the front door of the Golden Horn to the jukebox rhythm of Booker T. & the MG’s “Hip-Hug-Her,” we’re offered something quite extraordinary — provided one appreciates the comical irony which floats in the dregs of tragedy.
Note from Flickhead: This review originally appeared on Flickhead.com. Because of a book I’m attempting to write, I won’t have as much time to devote to this blog or the website. While I’ll occasionally contribute new pieces (two are in the works right now), there will be the sporadic ‘reprints’ like the one above. I’ve approached several online writers to see if Flickhead can be kept alive through their kind efforts. If you’d like to write for Flickhead in exchange for free DVD screeners or book review copies, write me: flickhead @ Comcast dot net.