Certificate: 18
Running time: 100 mins
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige, Frank Stallone
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: USA

Henry Chinaski is a barfly.  He spends his time drinking, fighting and dancing with words in the twilight hours of 1980’s Los Angeles.  Legendary writer Charles Bukowski lends his incredibly distinctive voice to the screen in the roman รก clef styled narrative of his alter ego and the life one lives in the pursuit of something more than the consumer ideal.

Barfly is a film we’ve been wanting to feature on Knifed in Venice for some time now.  The trouble was figuring out how to confine discussion of someone like Bukowski into a few thousand words.  There comes a time though when you have to let go and decide to commit, Hank of all people would appreciate that.  There are few writers in history, and even the future of history that have or will ever have the kind of effect that Charles Bukowski had.  Barfly coming from his typer is the closest, and most honest, thing you’ll ever see with regards to addiction and adaptation.  Granted it is not based on any of his novels, short stories or even poems but it is based on the man, and like all of his work it shines with humour and a matter of factness that can’t help but be endearing.

Narratively the film can’t be faulted, though if you’re looking for huge arches and great realisations by the
protagonist you’ve picked the wrong movie.  This is a drop-in, you see Henry’s life, you’re privy to his special brand of madness and after some time alongside him you’re invited to leave.  There’s no great changes in character, no staggering realisation but it’s as it is.  That's life.  The dialogue is so incredibly rich, there are more clever and staggeringly beautiful lines than any one notepad could contain and there are no characters that are thinly drawn.  I don’t know whether it’s because the author of this world was on set and able to assist a lot of the performers or whether it was just all there below the slugline but whatever the reason it’s a masterclass in screenwriting, from a man who hated movies.

Visually Barbet Schroeder has crafted a mise-en-shot that is insanely clever.  The film opens like a book, each scene is the turn of a page and when we close on the final scene of the film it’s as though we’ve turned to the back cover to read the plaudits that barely do it justice.  There’s a theatricality to the staging and many of the performances that, for the first few moments, is somewhat off putting but it’s clear it’s an aesthetic that Schroeder has intentionally opted for.  It feels, in places, like the behind the scenes documentary of a Douglas Sirk film, only everyone is still in character.  It’s wholesome America, or at least the illusion of wholesome America blown apart, exposed for the myth that it is.  It’s clever, beautifully dysfunctional and subversive in a way that only a non-American can be in an American genre, think Leone.

Mickey Rourke is Henry Chinaski, yes Bukowski is Chinaski but Rourke is also Chinaski.  He has a seductive self destruction about him, especially in the eighties, that embodies everything that the author’s character is about.  Rourke is lucky, he’s a talented actor yes but he always has a well of five novels, a powerful screenplay and the real thing to tap into in order to understand and live the character and he doesn’t disappoint.  As good as Matt Dillon’s performance is in Factotum Rourke is better.  He is dangerous, he is charismatic and also a fearless performer.  Dunaway (as Wanda) is an interesting piece of casting.  Initially there’s a weariness in her, she’s too well kept, she holds herself too straight to be that down and out and then you realise that it’s intentional.  It’s subversive, what the hell do any of us know about being a true barfly, about aiming for rock bottom in order to obtain a degree of freedom.  I’ve lived there for a while and my initial recoiling from her performance is because she’s too good, she holds a mirror up and forces you to look at your demons.  Her interplay with Rourke is amazing, you believe them as a couple, you believe them as destructive and yet creative forces in one another’s lives.  It all stems from Rourke though, even Frank Stallone (who will admit to not being the greatest actor ever) has a powerful on screen presence.  His continuing feud with our protagonist is hilarious as they’ve passed hating each other and have entered into that realm where they beat on each other simply to punctuate their evenings.

The best way to enjoy Barfly is with a beer and a cinematic friend who knows how to keep their mouth shut but if you really want to get the most out of this elegant and wry film watch Barfly and then immediately read Hollywood, which is Bukowski’s novel about the making of the movie.  He leaves everything on the page, demonstrating the frustrating highs and lows of funding and egos in a land that chases the almighty dollar.  I could say more, but you’d have to buy me a drink.


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