Soft-spoken and even, Charles Bukowski sounds nothing like his face looks. Or like his prose reads. In his introduction to the 1979 edition of John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Bukowski recounts his early days of living in Los Angeles, drinking wine, and reading his way through the L.A. Public Library — mathematics, philosophy, surgery, whatever. And literature, piles of the stuff, frustratingly digging through mountains of mediocre prose. “Why didn’t anybody scream out?” Bukowski wrote. Then he found Fante and heard the cry.
No doubt a similar scene has played out a hundred times more with a reader asking the same and finding Bukowski. Either in his poetry or his prose. There is plenty of both.
Born Aug. 16, 1920, in Germany, Bukowski didn’t start seriously writing until he was 50 (his first novel, Post Office, was published in 1971), but quickly became the “poet laureate of L.A. lowlife,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Fame, in a manner of speaking, followed, from public readings to T.V. and radio interviews. And on Jan. 10, 1981, Italian journalist Silvia Bizio came calling at Bukowski’s San Pedro home with a camera crew in tow. And now, almost 40 years later, you can eavesdrop on that evening.
You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski is an engaging piece of work. The documentary opens with Bizio recounting to director Matteo Borgardt’s camera her one-time meeting with the writer. Next to her: videotapes the crew shot over the course of one long night and more bottles of wine than you can count. Behind her: the poster of the movie, this movie. It premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival before moving on to the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival and then falling off into obscurity. Now it’s back, and Bizio is providing an intro to another intro, this one filmed five or so years ago, a frame within a frame.
Then comes Bukowski, and the doc takes flight. His face pockmarked, his hair stringy and slicked back. He drinks, constantly, and smokes incessantly. He rattles off stories with ease and professes his piggish views on sex without apology. He shows the crew around his home, plays with his cats and drinks more wine.
Borgardt peppers this interview with contemporary footage of Los Angeles, grainy and faded: The sun setting over the ocean, buskers on Venice Beach, bicyclists on the Santa Monica boardwalk, the charcoal sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard, homeless tent cities, palm trees and on and on. Mostly, it feels phony and forced, but some of it does capture the golden-hued wonder of the city.
You Never Had It works best when it sticks close to Bukowski. The man was a born raconteur, and at 54 brisk minutes, the doc leaves you wanting more. Thankfully, there’s plenty of Bukowski to discover — 65 books, but who’s counting? If he were alive today, he would have been 100. But there’s no way Bukowski could have made it that long. Bukowski died on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro Peninsula Hospital from leukemia. He was 73.
ON THE BILL: You Never Had It:An Evening with Bukowski is available on CU-Boulder International FIlm Series virtual theaters starting Aug. 7.