While watching Bukowski at Bellevue, an unearthed hour-long film of Charles Bukowski reading his poems in 1970 at Washington’s Bellevue Community College, I was reminded of two other works of art: Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Frank Zappa’s “Plastic People”. As for the former, which I only saw recently, I was struck by the response to Van Sant’s decision to show nothing very important for the first hour of the movie. Most critics thought that it was an audacious and anti-Hollywood move, but a few, most notably The New Republic‘s Stanley Kauffman, thought that it was artsy nonsense designed to intimidate critics into praising it or else run the risk of appearing square. The Zappa song, one which I’ve known for some time, has a great stanza in it, which goes: “Take a day and walk around / Watch the Nazis run your town / Then go home and check yourself / You think we’re singing ’bout someone else”. What do these two things have to do with Charles Bukowski? Generally, I think they’ve got some light to shed on the way we think of the man. As for specifics, I’ll start with the Elephant comparison and then get around to Mr. Zappa.
Watching Elephant and then checking out its critical response, I was amazed at how far reviewers were willing to bend over backwards to not only forgive it for its endlessly tedious shots of students walking (and walking and walking) through the halls of their high school, but to actually praise it for those very things. Nothingness, it seems, has a way of appearing profound when it comes from an authoritative source, and sometimes that very authority was established simply by the artist being audaciously empty. It’s one of those dirty little secrets of art that a piece or even body of work can be so confusing in its effect that swarms of people get convinced of its greatness through the force of the artist’s personality, and this phenomenon tends to snowball to the point where neophytes are much too scared to ask the justifiable — nay, necessary — question about what all the fuss is for. Charles Bukowski may or may not be a great artist, but I think it’s long past due that someone began questioning him for, among other things, his refusal to offer any interpretations of the gutter life he detailed so thoroughly. What does it all mean? What’s the point? Does there need to be one?
And the Zappa song — I found it to be one of those fantastic unintended ironies when the stone-age camera took a few moments out of its close-up of Bukowski, reading with implied scorn about “hippies and yippies hitchhiking in $50 boots”, to show just such people sitting rapt in the audience. It’s a natural impulse, as Zappa had it sussed, to think of yourself as one of the good guys in any work of art depicting a struggle between two sides. Bukowski was a bona fide lowlife, but I don’t know of and can’t imagine any bums sitting around reading Post Office. Its fans are almost invariably college students pretending to be hippies or beats who were themselves pretending to be Buddhists or African-Americans or something else. What matters most in this dynamic between Bukowski and his audience is that it matters much more whether he’s authentic than whether or not he’s any good. If he lived it, then all the oppressive, Eurocentric standards of artistic quality get thrown out the window, right along with any reminders of said college students’ ties to bourgeois society, ties often so strong that you’d think it’d take more than a few poems to forget.
If all this analysis comes across as unfair to Bukowski’s art, it’s because I think no discussion of his art can take place anymore without a sizeable prelude about the secret reasons for his appeal to clear out the layer upon layer of intellectual muck smothering the work itself. Then and only then can we hope to catch a glimpse of this unlikely phenomenon beneath it all. And as for the portion of it on display in Bukowski at Bellevue, it probably has little chance of swaying opinions in either the love-him or hate-him camps. To the uninitiated, Bukowski might come across as a crotchety, unfeeling old man, too jaded by a blurry string of booze, hookers, and misfortune to feel anything anymore. The camera stays as steady as it can on his face, and it’s about as motionless as his voice is monotonous. Occasionally, he sips from his thermos of mystery liquid, but beyond that, there are no clues about his state of mind. Yet that murkiness is precisely what can make the man genuinely compelling. Really, how has this life affected him? He won’t tell you exactly, just offer you enough to make you want to guess. Of course, the surface betrays no involvement with what goes on around him, but his very need to scribble it all down gives away the human impulses flickering beneath the stony exterior. This stuff fascinates him, and perhaps he didn’t have the wherewithal to make any kind of sense of it, or maybe he just wasn’t willing to try. The one thing he makes clear here and elsewhere is that, despite every obscuring thing he puts in our way, the man had a soul, and the contribution of this lonely fact to American art is worth remembering when all the other nonsense is rightfully forgotten.