A giant careens down the corridor of a crummy hotel in East L.A. His biceps are as bulky as state-fair hams and they are tatooed with the storyboard of your worst nightmare. You pray that he is employed in some captive, professional
"He's an actor and a stuntman and a writer," the production assistant whispers. Writer? "For muscle magazines. He calls himself Magic." Magic and his companion, a comparatively frail six-foot speed freak, are hustling a live chicken (delivered by the chicken wrangler, also Popeye-armed and tatooed) into their room. The chicken, who is intimidated or maybe just playing hard to get does not flap her wings emotively enough. The director, Barbet Schroeder, mimes the action with his arms. This puzzles the hen who acts dumb for a couple of takes, giving the camera nothing but inert, beaky profiles.
The room is a stew of stained mattresses, overflowing ashtrays, beer cans, and bottles of Scotch. Schroeder decides the set is too tidy.
"I'm asking for, you know, a little bit more garbage. You got a banana?"
"Get me a banana peel."
"Now that's funny. The banana peel is
funny. There's your Oscar right there." Magic juggles a disemboweled pillow. "Best Supporting Chicken. We need adult supervision in here."
A refuse heap resembling Mickey Rourke shuffles by. "Look at that," Schroeder remarks. 'It's timeless ... timeless." Rourke is the very model of Swamp Thing chic: skinned knuckles, blistered lips, prong teeth, rag-mop hair, clothes like the hide of an unruly animal. There is only one mistake in his makeup: His eyes are not bloodshot or tobaccoey yellow, as a truly serious drunk's would be.
But Rourke is hardly a hot-house actor. He maintains a heavy motorcycle habit and an entourage that could tame the military troubles of Nicaragua, Chile, and Ecuador before breakfast. He became a hot property after playing the arsonist in Body Heat because he did not, alarmingly, seem to be acting. Though some of his subsequent performances, notably in Rumble Fish and Year of the Dragon, derive from The James Dean Hipper-Than-Thou Hand book for Movie Heavies. Rourke never lets himself float far from the truth of his roles. In Barfly he is doing, for a million- dollar leading man a brave thing: He is playing a mean ugly nasty smelly poet- drunk in a low-budget movie.
The poet-drunk, Henry Chinaski, is based on Charles Bukowski. the sixty-
eight-year-old California poet, painter, and novelist who wrote the script. By
his own admission, Bukowski's many books constitute the prolonged suicide note of an author whose extinction, in the circular fashion of his funk, can only be postponed by the composition of a boozy suicide note. Though nearly un known in the States outside of a few culty English departments, Bukowski is a best-seller in Europe.
Unlike William Kennedy, a writerly writer whose down-and-outers inhabit a cozier, nostalgic landscape, Bukowski writes the way you would if you got around to the book that you feel, at 4:00a.m., lurks within you. His prose is reckless, cloacal, assaultively honest, and baldly pictured as a screenplay. He is an utterly undressed writer, agonized and stubbornly present in his pitted skin. Immerse yourself in Bukowski's stories and you find yourself reaching for the Quell lotion. Comes the era of the Big Fib, the whole country still hungover from the sensory exaggeration of the six ties...and maybe it's time for a little candor, a la Bukowski.
But try pitching this concept: Barflyopens with drunks brawling about nothing in particular, detours through hang overs and stabbings and blood-stained
underwear, and ends with women rolling on the barroom floor, fighting over men. Runamuck "Honeymooners"?
Barbet Schroeder, who in Europe directed, among others, General Idi Amin
Dada, lights a big cigar and leers angelically. "Barfly is a comedy. Bukowski's vi sion of the world attracted me. It's desperate and funny, about something Americans maybe don't want to see."
A man is asleep on his feet in the phone booth outside the liquor store on Kenmore and West Third. It's a furniture- in-the-street neighborhood. The man is not an actor. He is a junkie waiting for a call-back from his dealer. He is too strung out to understand that the phone, in keeping with LAPD's campaign against street dealing, does not take incoming calls.
He wakes suddenly and says: "That Hitler—he was some hothead, hah?" He nods savagely at the camera and lights. "Who's the star of this movie —Mickey Rock? Oh, yeah, I know Mickey Rock. I can't get enuffa that guy. Mickey Rock."
Rourke staggers past a German shepherd locked in the back of a black jeep.
The script calls for the dog lo be "intimidated to a super fury by Henry's presence ... black quivering gums, tongue coated with saliva of kill-hate... the ecstatic and eternal peak of murder."But when Rourke quasimodos by, the animal turns shy and looks coquettishly to one side. Rourke slaps his paper wine- bottle bag against his thigh. The trainer rehearses the dog with an extra who looks too blonde to think. The animal is still not suitably enraged. The trainer gets in the jeep with the dog. The jeep rocks. Take nine: Still no snarls, but it's swell, fine, OK, Fido's history.
Across the street, in a booth toward the back of the Kenmore Lounge, at a Wizard-of-Oz remove from the fantasy apparatus outside, Charles Bukowski is discoursing on the deterioration of the bubbles in his bottle of Bud. He has a trampled face, a face out of Brueghel. He grips his beer—wears it. rather. Every few minutes, someone offers him an other round. He grins brokenly through the forest of bottles on the table, takes a swig, and accepts a replacement as soon as it's offered. His wife, Linda, a delicate young woman tarted up in red toreador pants and pumps —she'll be a hooker in The next scene—sits nearby.
Bukowski is a Zen lush: He loves being in bars, but he's not really a drunk; not anymore, anyway. His dhanna is to wield his bottle and discuss his exploits while chuckling at the sideshow and maintaining a crystalline accuracy about the lonely atrocities of his life.
Everybody on the crew courts him. His voice is slow, gravelly, incantatory. "I'm a graduate of the three great universities—women, booze, the track. Movies — I can't stand them. Sitting there eating popcorn, looking up at pictures for hours ... Linda's always threatening me: 'Let's go see this, let's sec that.' Me. as long as the horses are running, I'm at tho track. You get to make your own decisions at the track.
"I didn't start writing full-time till I was fifty. I worked. I've only been a professional writer for sixteen years. So I don't feel there's a lot of time. For me or the readers. You need flames and dancing on the first page. I take pictures in words."
The proprietor of the bar asks for an autograph. Strangely, for a barman, he is drunk, and pushy about it. Maybe he feels this is the way to approach a legendary lush, or to audition for a part in a Bukowski story. "You been on skidrow..." "No. I never got down there." Bukowski lowers his eyes. He may be a great elbow-on-the-bar sermonizer, but he is shy about alcoholic presumptions of intimacy.
An ice cube explodes in somebody's Seagram's. Bukowski chuckles. Considering his age — he was forty when the sixties started —there is something dewy about him, scorched. Bukowski the anti-puritan is still puritan enough to make a cause out of drinking. His pickled prose is a kind of fundamental ism: It evokes a simpler world —of righteous bohemian rebelliousness, belligerent heterosexualily, good guys and bad guys, guys and dolls. And boozy antics go a long way toward movieizing a writer's cinematically stupefying life: scribble, scribble, scribble.
"How you gonna make a movie about a writer anyway? All a writer wants to do is stay home and write and drink. But. OK, they're after me for years to write this script. This guy Henry I wrote about —he wasn't a writer. He was just drinking. 1 wasn't writing then—when I was his ago. all I did was drink. They said, 'We need something to show that he's more than just, you know. That he's a writer. Show us something, a piece of paper." OK. Then they said, 'We need a woman.' I said. 'Well, OK ... ' I had a woman then, somebody I was living with. Then they said, 'We need another woman —someone who understands he's really special." OK.
"So Sean Penn wanted to do it. He was gonna work for a dollar. But he wanted his own director—some guy who just did some action thing with lots of blood. Barbet's been with this thing seven years; we couldn't work it out. Then I'm sitting in Musso's one night and this guy comes over who made a movie about Kerouac or somebody. He wanted to do it. He had the money, but he wanted to call it, I don't know, something with 'Love' in the title. I told him what I thought and he was gone, the guy with all the money."
A pretty young production assistant approaches. "Can I give you a kiss?" she implores the frog prince. Bukowski sits there, sweetly immobilized by her magic, his magic, and memories of the days when a maidenly peck was the last thing he expected in a bar.
Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, who plays his rummy girlfriend, back into the bar, getting ready to make an exit to ward the camera across the street. Dunaway shakes Bukowski's hand and gives a glassy smile. She has the best cheekbones of any lush you've ever seen. Rourke, slaying in character, grunts. They lurch toward the movie happening outside.
"You see that?" Bukowski's peeved.
"Guy can't tell the difference between me and this bottle of beer. You seen any dailies? I saw some dailies. Mickey's a little too Neanderthal. That's OK. But I was never as bad as that. He's getting about eight hundred times more money than I am for this. OK. I'm getting a novel out of it. Called Hollywood. I got three chapters already. Everybody's in it. You're in it. Lookit this bar-Reagan-era bar. You gotta go a long way to find real despair these days. You gotta go to your room and pull down the shades. Let's get out of here. Where's Mickey's Rolls? Where's that Rolls of his?"
On the sidewalk, Rourke is doing a scene on hands and knees, scrubbing his bloody stubble with fire-hydrant dribble. Across the street, the junkie, shirtless now despite the evening chill, sidles up to the production cop, ogling the flashlight on his belt. It happens in a series of jump cuts.
The junkie grabs the flashlight. Gets clobbered. Gets handcuffed. Nose bent into the pavement. Here it is, you're watching it: stumblebum suffering in all its suicidal, silent-comedy stupidity, the genuine article. It's enough to drive you to drink. Bukowski returns to the bar. It takes a tender guy to write a tough movie.