Film Review
By Ray Young


Faye Dunaway, Mickey Rourke, Barbet Schroeder



Directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Produced by Tom Luddy, Fred Roos, and Barbet Schroeder.
Written by Charles Bukowski.
Cinematography by Robby Müller.
With Mickey Rourke (Henry Chinaski), Faye Dunaway (Wanda Wilcox),
Alice Krige (Tolly Soreson), Jack Nance (detective),
J.C. Quinn (Jim), Frank Stallone (Eddie).
Released in 1987.

    Barbet Schroeder’s involvement with Beat icon Charles Bukowski netted four-hour’s worth of The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1983), a video interview in which the heavy-drinking wordsmith pontificated on anything he fancied, real or imagined. Was the bourgeois, globe-trotting Schroeder merely awestruck by Bukowski’s slacker indifference to middle-class ambition, or had he found truth and wisdom in those slurred diatribes?
    Perhaps a little of both. Four years later, Barfly was Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical account of a full-time lush and back-alley brawler. The ‘semi’ refers to when he’s propped up as a charismatic ladies man and poet laureate in waiting. The benefit of casting Mickey Rourke — whose punchy élan endears the black eye, greasy hair and probable b.o. — substantiates an attraction for some women, but Barfly shortchanges its own assertions to the bard’s brilliance. Fortunately, we’re subject to his soporific prose in sparse narrated digressions.
    Swaggering through his favorite haunt, a bucket of blood called ‘The Golden Horn,’ Rourke’s Henry Chinaski is the alcoholic dream of bottomless drinking without the pesky aftereffects of blackout, DT’s or jail. Yes, this is a comedy. Always game for sparring with barkeep Frank Stallone (a foe who represents obviousness), comfortable in poverty (penniless is ‘back to normal’), Henry’s hailed as a brilliant author (classic skid row romanticism) and, despite stalled hygiene, manages to attract women of a league with Alice Krige and Faye Dunaway (in her best performance since Network). Rolling his shoulders and lifting his jaw in slouched grandiosity, Rourke works from Brando’s catalog of underlined gestures, tics and sighs, yet it’s difficult to imagine another actor committing the role with such wobbling panache.
    Bukowski and Schroeder sidestep the moralizing that plagues the juicers of The Lost Weekend and The Days of Wine and Roses, stories that knew alcoholism as slavery to the bottle. By considering the conflict between conformity and anarchism, however, Barfly understands alcohol as a means to transcend societal norms and expectations. The misinformed may believe such laissez faire empowers one to live by free will — yet how ‘free’ if it necessitates the drink? The steep price includes the sacrifice of nearly all creature comforts (Henry’s dilapidated apartment consists of bed, nightstand and radio), affording one free reign to . . . well, get drunk.
    Schroeder wasn’t the first to see the cinematic potential in Bukowski. There were earlier short student films, and director Marco Ferreri made the barely-released Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), which suffered the anomaly of casting an inherently urbane Ben Gazzara in a role better suited to late-period Sterling Hayden or Michael J. Pollard. But Barfly was the mainstream’s first dose of outré Los Angeles fleapit sleaze, and Schroeder’s American debut. (Legend has it he threatened to saw off his finger if Canon Pictures wouldn’t bankroll the project.) Its soft lighting barely concealing jaundice, the film taps into a very private and arcane Eden. It has several unbelievably bad supporting performances (some of the cast wandered in off the street), and is often dramatically challenged. But as the camera glides through the front door of the Golden Horn to the jukebox percussion of Booker T. & the MG’s “Hip-Hug-Her,” we’re offered something quite extraordinary — provided one appreciates the comical irony which floats in the dregs of tragedy.