Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Faye Dunaway's 71st birthday.
Director: Barbet Schroeder. Cast: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige, J.C. Quinn, Frank Stallone, Jack Nance, Roberta Bassin, Sandy Martin, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Joe Unger, Harry Cohn, Gloria LeRoy, Joe Rice, Julie "Sunny" Pearson, Gary Carlos Cervantes, Peter Conti. Screenplay: Charles Bukowski.
Twitter Capsule: Bukowski's poetics keep eluding screen translation, but full-circle structure pays off, as do Müller's, Dunaway's industry

Photo © 1987 The Cannon Group/Zoetrope Productions
One among many reasons I love David Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch is that it makes a strange, divisive cult-hero of a writer more accessible to a wide(ish) audience not by watering him down or plopping him before a camera but by finding so many visual, verbal, behavioral, rhythmic, sonic, and plastic metonymies for Burroughsian language. Some of these are nothing like each other. Many evoke the writer only in spirit, and in a skewed sense of his spirit, at that. Peter Weller's "Bill Lee" is simultaneously a deadpan approximation of Burroughs and a very dissimilar figure; the character works not by impersonation nor even through sheer force of the filmmakers' besottedness with their antihero. The touchstone in Naked Lunch is garrulous, effulgent, discomfiting creativity, and if you still don't jive to lewdly rococo routines about conspiratorial cabals, talking assholes, and sodomy in the casbahs, you can admire the artistries they have inspired in other people, who wouldn't have had a leg to stand on without the inspiration they found in Burroughs, no matter how far afield they've taken that spark.

I mention this because the writer Charles Bukowski seems to reach and hold his fans within the same zone of underground fascination that Burroughs inspires—a kind of laconic sublime. Yet Bukowski's disciples do a much patchier job of translating what they relish in his work to anyone who doesn't already feel it in the writer's weirdly insouciant sourness and his fourth-snifter ruminations. I speak as a non-convert. Filmmakers are not the only people whose overtures toward interesting me in Bukowski have fallen short, and in truth, the efforts have not been total washes. Bent Hamer's Factotum, with a gamely anesthetized Matt Dillon and a colorful supporting cast, offers a diverting series of zonked, peculiar anecdotes, and I'd like them even more if I could remember them. The same thing happens in Barfly: the movie isn't without its own points of interest, but by the time I reached each scene, I had forgotten almost everything more than three scenes previous (or, as we shall see, I thought I had). Entire vectors and subplots seem like miscarriages. In a way, Barfly had one up on me, because the conclusion replays the beginning in a way that suggests a surprisingly structured experience, seeded with a set of ideas that flower in the closing moments even though, as I now see, they had been there throughout, coming to slow bloom. Having made the trip, I'm more inclined to appreciate it than I was along the way, even if I still feel very qualified in recommending it to anyone else.

Bukowski himself, via his unmistakable surrogates, is front-and-center in both Factotum and Barfly, and as an individual, he seems totally uninteresting. The corollary to this problem is that Bukowski's voice, which sloughs a tremendous ratio of its nuance and appeal to anyone who hasn't spent years in or near a pool of alcohol, just isn't flexible the way Burroughs's is. This is a matter of pure personal taste, but I like films or other projects based on writers' lives to show that their work is not just a free-standing and venerable museum piece but an exciting set of construction materials by which other assemblages, other visions, other structures become newly possible. Writers ought to need readers, including fellow writers who don't just duplicate or mythologize them. Burroughs, whom I only erratically enjoy in direct contact, is remarkable for all the imaginative labor his innovations have facilitated from other people. Whereas the movies made about Bukowski's work or, as in Barfly, derived from his own screenplay have not yet convinced me that his writing is good for much beyond re-dramatizing his own habits and his wry, dubiously illuminating, through-a-shotglass-darkly style of observation. The actors who play him feel even more stuck within the parameters of his own legacy than the guys who get recruited into playing Woody Allen for Woody Allen. I'm surprised to find that peak-period Mickey Rourke is a less inspiring ambassador for this body of work than Dillon is. Even if you don't know the voice Rourke is imitating, or the loping gait, both physical and verbal, you're in no doubt that he's imitating something. Otherwise, there would be no reason for his character, Henry Chinaski, to adopt this enervating, high-in-the-throat voice, this aura of a sleepy Snoopy who has never been washed. A hologram of Bukowski appears to motivate every tic in Rourke's strange performance, much more so than the details of what Henry wants or perceives or thinks or feels in the dramatic scenarios that Bukowski devises for him. He looks trapped inside a movie in his head, and unable to translate that movie into our heads.

Faye Dunaway patently agrees with Rourke that Barfly holds strong acting-piece potential, but she swings in the opposite direction, immersing herself fully in each scene, and in the scene beneath the scene, and in the character's experience of the scene, and in the unfilmed connecting episodes before and after the scene. At some risk of overselling the audience on her own diligence, she rarely stops showing you the thought she is putting into her lines before, while, and after she says them, and even the thoughts she is putting into other people's lines. Sometimes her shifts in sightline and in the muscles of her forehead look too strenuous, like she's eager for us to know how hard she's working. This is the old Ellen Burstyn syndrome, when directors don't step in to calm her down, but it's a little harder to take from Dunaway (albeit not entirely unfamiliar from other work she's done), because she is such a genius at letting ideas about her characters flow off of a dazzlingly diagonal face that often doesn't seem to move that much, despite the fires in her eyes, however blazing (Network) or gutted (Chinatown). The tougher thought to resist is that Dunaway, absurdly ostracized for doing the only thing Mommie Dearest allowed or encouraged her to do and going hell-for-leather on Crawford, was afterward consigned to the completely unfair position of re-auditioning for her own A-list career. No wonder her acting occasionally has the tinge here of the A student aggressively raising her hand in the front row, determined to win back all the credit she lost on that disastrous elective course that torpedoed her GPA.

But here's the other thing about Dunaway, since I'm finding it hard not to foreground the performances in Barfly, even though I don't think Rourke's irritating one or Dunaway's intriguing one are the reasons the movie works even as well as it does. A consummate professional, aware of her own power, Dunaway's choices are often quite smart and exciting, even when the process by which she arrives at them is sometimes too conspicuous. Note the scene where she lounges in a bathrobe on her couch, under morning light, revealed to Henry for the first time as a creature of the daylight hours, and as a woman with a body, not just a bottomless pit in the back of her throat (and in the basement of her heart, too, though she's not too sentimental about that). Noticing Henry's casual interest in her body, Dunaway's Wanda is simultaneously louche and awkward in the way she starts flaunting her legs for this new co-adventurer in uneasy mating. Dunaway makes the gesture both stilted and sexually thrilling, and the look in her eyes makes it funny and severely unnerving. She looks as trapped within inarticulate flesh as Monica Vitti often did, and as tightly wound as an Ingrid Casarès or a Delphine Seyrig, and yet she has the inexpungeable allure of a Deneuve. All that plus matted hair and the unmistakable penumbra of a Scotch drinker's morning breath.

Dunaway's as expressive with a line as with her body: viz. the comma she throws into the sentence "I don't want to go through that, again," expanding the line's meanings toward some undisclosed past horizon. She can play a character who is perceptibly at the end of a long slide down a very chafing rope, holding onto very little (and who knows what that is, or what she had beforehand) and yet convince us as someone who can summon considerable power. One of Barfly's indelible supporting figures is called Lily (Roberta Bassin), an immobile mollusk of pure vituperation, a barnacle at the end of the bar, bitterly cat-calling whomever sits a few stools down. Wanda finds Lily to be a peripheral annoyance the first time she joins Henry at The Golden Horn (his joint, not hers), but when she decides she's had enough, she leans forward, stares right at this blazing oil-fire of a woman, and flicks off the single, profoundly overfamiliar line "What's your problem?". She does this at low volume, without emotional emphasis, and Lily is simply annihilated. Dunaway makes Wanda a convincing blend of inveterate mettle, dumb impulse, and constant crises of confidence. She is very touching but not at all maudlin as she admits to Henry, of all people, that she has failed to secure a job: this time it's Wanda, not the actress, who's lamenting her long-ago life as a fixture on life's honor roll. If Dunaway can't lead you into Bukowski's mindset, she can at least lead you into her own, and if that's not exactly where Barfly seems most needful of going, it's a destination worth checking out. She does enough with her lines that they don't just sit there, juiced up inside rough, impenetrable rinds, the way they often do when Rourke starts handing them around.

So maybe Barfly is an acting piece, after all; it's hard to maintain otherwise after three paragraphs devoted to one performance. Still, it would be tough to engage and simple to shake off without the visuals and the atmospheres concocted by director Barbet Schroeder (Maîtresse, Reversal of Fortune) and genius cinematographer Robby Müller (a repeat all-star on crews coached by Wenders, Jarmusch, and von Trier). Schroeder and Müller clearly looked at Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul several times as they plotted out Barfly. Characters continually enter these dungeons of drink and behold the whole place in stiff, almost sculptural long shot, followed by pitiless reverses in which we see how small and entomological the new arrival looks to her or his seated audience, even if they're all well acquainted. Müller's images don't have the livid colors of Fassbinder's, though, and they don't feel irradiated with the same bile. For that, we must partly credit a jewel-toned color palette and a wide, rangy frame that are obviously swiped from the Edward Hopper playbook, although these, too, feel like more than unprocessed homage. Barfly shares Hopper's knack for dynamizing the dank, empty, slate-colored air of a windowless watering hole but without making that air heavy or humid. Bukowski's signature dryness wouldn't work in a damp environment. There's something about his sentences that suggests a dry climate, no matter how much liquid he pours out and sucks up. (Bartender: "What're you drinking?" Henry: "Almost everything.") Barfly's light looks no less stale for being so colorful, and it avoids the static, ineloquent dinginess of Hector Babenco's Ironweed, released the same year. The wide framings, whether crowded or sparse, coax poignant, sometimes bumptiously comic portraits out of these denizens of the Golden Horn, these Trinculos of the late twentieth century. The actors may not always look comfortable (least of all Alice Krige, in a moribund subplot about a moneyed author and editor who's come slumming in search of Henry), but the balance of brokedown stultification and lively improvisation that animates the bars as well as the images gives Barfly an energy that Ironweed doesn't have, even when it's stuck on a very low hum.

Whether this energy is listless or in some ways concerted becomes an active question by the surprising end of Barfly. The movie opens, following a zesty but sad montage of hard-luck L.A. drinking establishments, with Henry getting punched to a pulp by bartender a named Eddie (played, in a winking bit of casting, by Rocky's lesser shadow, Frank Stallone). The Henry-Eddie rivalry is invoked in a good deal of dialogue through the movie, and concerned proprietor Jim (J.C. Quinn, appealing) keeps trying to quench Henry's urge to provoke these bruising, weirdly comic scrapes; Eddie usually wins, yet he's also the one who seems really infuriated by them, even dangerously so. At the end of the movie, newly flush with cash (though this is a near-certain anomaly), having more or less secured Wanda as a new girlfriend (though for who knows how long), and having moved unscathed through a few episodes that should have brought the hammer of the law squarely on top of him, Henry can't help goading Eddie into another courtyard brawl. Here, Barfly suddenly takes shape as a kind of New Wave spin on the liquor-slicked drama, closer to the comic interludes of Breathless or Blowup than The Iceman Cometh. These drinkers aren't here to philosophize or to fulminate, or at least Henry isn't. Henry spends his hours pulling together the fortuitous bric-a-brac of a badly organized life and seeing what kind of bragging rights they give him. What about a guy with a girlfriend and some literary royalties? Is he likely to beat Eddie in a fight? What about a guy who has the police in his apartment three times to investigate three reported fatalities, only one of them real, and still he gets off with nothing but a reminder to change his underwear? What kind of guy would I be if I were he? What about a guy who tells a rich lady, trawling around in nighttown, more or less where she can shove it? Can that guy beat Eddie in a fight?

The circularity of Henry's life and his thinking could not be more underscored by the syntax of the last few shots, which repeat Barfly's opening camera movements, edits, and images in reverse, to the same musical score. Henry's life seems like a desultory shambles, and is, but he and Barfly have managed to flavor it with a ludicrous, cyclical heroism, at least in his own mind. He has the resilience of a carnival-booth mole who thinks, for totally spurious reasons, that this time he won't get whacked, and then winds up not minding when the blow inevitably lands. To work a different playtime metaphor, Henry treats his life more or less as a series of random reaches into a cosmic bag of Scrabble tiles, and even though he never comes up with much besides blanks and vowels, he returns over and over to The Golden Horn to play his losing hand with a cocked grin. Even he has trouble reading his fellow players, and they can't figure out if they're in the same game he is or just meant to watch, or if they're allowed not to watch. Wanda shows up to the final sequence to take a low-key romantic victory lap at Henry's side, but that doesn't go quite as planned. So Barfly is at least as much about spirals into accident and craziness as it is about circular repetitions, willed or unwilled. The film views all of this with an unromanticizing fondness, though it stops short of implying that drunks live happier, funnier, or more richly spontaneous lives than we do, thank God. This is why it's a shame, though, when the screenplay foists upon Henry some lame aphorisms about The True Writer's hatred of peace or about the insights of mad people into a crazy world (a deathless cliché I was just complaining about!).

I never quite believed Barfly, in a related way to how I never bought into a much fussier film, American Splendor, about another cult writer whose "insights" felt banal to me and whose appeal on or off the screen just didn't land. But has Bukowski got the jump on me—am I more taken with what he's assembled than I imagined I was, partly because what's good about the movie and what's interesting in his script are not what I expected? As I write about Barfly, I do seem to be talking myself into greater admiration for it, or at least into a sense of welcome design beneath its superficial inertia. Its surprising charm, almost in spite of itself, recalls that of late, ramshackle Wenders pictures like Don't Come Knocking. Partly I am helping to elevate my response to Barfly by deliberately minimizing my comments on the wrong-headed Tully Sorenson plot, but partly also by conceding that Barfly may be wittier to think about than actually to experience. Maybe, as The Golden Horn attests about itself in the sign over its door, Barfly is "A Friendly Place," or at least a more conducive habitat for rewarding reflection than I sensed it was when I simply couldn't divine why I needed to know these characters for this long, and why they wake in the middle of the night convinced of their imminent deaths, and why Mickey Rourke kept talking like that, and why this all seems to mean a fair bit to a good number of people, and yet nothing at all to me. After a long time of just wanting to leave, I was taken aback to feel as welcomed as I was into Barfly's closing moments, and I'm now interested to see if the film grows in my mind from this new angle of vision. But then, at the same time, I'm confident that I'd prefer to keep thinking about Barfly than to actually revisit the experience. Grade: B

(in January 2012: B–)

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Faye Dunaway

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