Forgotten Films

Barfly (1987)

Today's film is suggested by guest blogger, Gary Hollingsbee.

For a while I've been undergoing a personal Renaissance: all the stuff that I was into when I was in my formative teen years that in my twenties I thought were childish, like comic books, indie music and Doctor Who, I've been rediscovering like a lot of old friends calling round. For a while I'd been thinking about a movie that really influenced me back then called Barfly and a few weeks ago I found a copy of it. The movie is a Hollywood take on a period in the life of the gutter poet Charles Bukowski. It's directed by Barbet Schroeder and stars Mickey Rourke and Fay Dunaway. It follows a few days in the life of Henry Chinaski (Rourke) - a fictionalized version of Bukowski - who spends his time drinking, brawling and writing poetry.

At a point in our late teens when we were really considering what sort of lives we wanted to lead, to me and my group of friends this movie was inspirational. We saw something beautiful and noble in the wretched existence of an alcoholic who poured out his soul into poetry. We all wanted to be artists and writers and saw this as an example of how to do it and find honest subject-matter.

Much of the film acts to explain why Chinaski is a bum. In our celebrity-centred society where so many are desperate for fame, it's refreshing to see that Chinaski doesn't care about what happens to his poetry: it's the actual writing of it that provides a meaning for his existence. Throughout the film he is followed by a private detective (played by Jack Nance, a David Lynch regular) who spends his time stealing Chinaski's writing so it can be published by his agent, Tully Sorenson, played by Alice Krige. There's a memorable scene where she says to him that he's wasting his life, that anyone can be a drunk. He replies: "Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth." She is unable to comprehend Chinaski's lack of personal ambition and tells him that he's wasting his talent:
Tully Sorenson: You can really write. Why do you live like a bum?
Henry Chinaski: I am a bum. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to write about the sufferings of the upper classes?
Sorenson: This may be news to you but they suffer too.
Chinaski: Hey baby, nobody suffers like the poor.
At the time I thought this was profound social commentary - and in Hollywood terms, I guess it is. I guess all those years ago, I liked Chinaski's freedom, the way he could choose not to try and engage with the pressures of the rat race, to show the courage and desperation of ordinary hard up people. At the time I was gearing up to go to university and really felt the pressure of conforming to the patterns of a future working life. Now I certainly wouldn't think it offers any guide to living.

The structure of the movie is circular and begins and ends with Chinaski brawling with his nemesis: the supposedly, good looking bartender, Eddie - played by Sly's brother, Frank Stallone. This antipathy towards attractive men with no personality struck a chord with me as a teen. I couldn't understand why women were attracted to guys with no depth who you just knew loved themselves too much and would mistreat them. Chinaski's comments in the movie about Eddie were almost like a manifesto for me: "[Eddie] symbolizes everything that disgusts me. Obviousness. Unoriginal macho energy. Ladies man...."

I was also inspired by the way that Chinaski imagines his legacy in a voice-over towards the end of the movie:
"And as my hands drop the last desperate pen, in some cheap room, they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape.
That Chinaski labours without ever attempting to get his work published or seeking any form of fame, I thought profound. It influenced me then - to the point where I stopped my own attempts at writing and virtually gave up.

As you can see, thinking about this movie all these years later is something very personal to me. The movie is, I think, not available on dvd. For me this is Rourke's finest performance. After that -- who knows what happened to him but he wasted his talent. Maybe too much like Henry Chinaski.

You're right it isn't available. There was a region one dvd release but that's been deleted. The cheapest copy on Amazon's marketplace in the UK is £66.29 and in the US, $78.75. Which is a shame because it sounds really entertaining. Thanks Gary. If anyone else would like to suggest a film and even write a couple of hundred words about it, please email


Anonymous said...

Thank you!
Mickey Rourke OnLine

Anonymous said...

Whats Richard Herring doing in that picture?

Stuart Ian Burns said...

It does look a bit like him doesn't it?