Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raw Poetry: "Bukowski at Bellevue" (1995)

Poet Charles Bukowski was a force of nature. If you are not familiar with his verse, you might be familiar with three films based on his prose- "Barfly," "Factotum," and "Tales of Ordinary Madness." This black and white video captures Buk at a poetry reading in 1970, and its technical problems enhance the man's words.

Despite assumptions, the Bellevue in the title does not refer to the mental institution, but a small college in Washington. The footage was shot on videotape, and forgotten and thought lost until its rediscovery in the 1990's. The running time is barely under an hour, and the frame wavers, flickers, and freezes as Bukowski drinks booze from a thermos and reads aloud to a gathering of students.

This is not Romantic or Victorian rhymed verse in iambic pentameter. Bukowski spent his life on skid row among society's refuse. He writes vividly of the women he laid and the drinks he drank. He turns tender when writing about taking his then-toddler daughter to the bathroom, and shows a mix of respect and repulsion at some of his dalliances with prostitutes. We hear about cockroaches and flop houses, and through his slurred monotone we can see and smell what he is describing.

Once in a while, Bukowski flubs a word or smirks, genuine qualities from a man who seems uncomfortable in the land of intellectuals. He wasn't really part of the Beat Generation, but I'll put his self-destructive brilliance against Kerouac or Ginsberg any day.

The direction is simple. Bukowski sits in his chair and reads as the camera drifts once in a while to a rapt audience member. The sound quality is surprisingly good, the microphones pick up every word. Bukowski readings were sometimes known to degenerate into shouting matches, but here he lets his words do all of his fighting for him. He is crass, crude, and unapologetic, and this forty year old piece of honesty is like a breath of fresh air in today's world of manufactured reality, coarse political discourse, and obvious hypocrisy.

"Bukowski at Bellevue" is required for all poets, readers, and lovers of English. Charles, I raise my glass to you. (* * * * *) out of five stars.