Classic Cannon: Barfly (1987)

Andrew reviews one of the best films ever made about alcoholism, Barfly.

German born American novelist, columnist and poet Charles Bukowski is regarded as one of the finest literary icons of the 1970s.  Focusing largely on Western poverty with themes including but not limited to the literary process, alcohol consumption, misgivings about women and the doldrums of the working class, Bukowski's work is as much of an extension of the author's own life stories as it is a rumination on the classless American underdog.  Bukowski's work also joins fellow authors William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson in terms of utilizing an alter ego as an auto-critique of their own degrees of substance abuse, whether it be the treasure chest of hallucinogens fostered by Thompson's Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or the bug powder and heroin fueled Bill Lee in Burrough's Naked Lunch.  Here, Bukowski presents Henry Chinaski, a crusty drunk who saunters from bar to bar getting wasted often with the goal of looking for a fight before winning or losing only to repeat the same pattern the following day.  Unlike many of Bukowski's prior works, what would ultimately become the Mickey Rourke starring film Barfly was originally commissioned to Bukowski by the utterly fearless Iranian filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, making it among the only transpositions of Bukowski to the silver screen by the author himself.   Pitched to The Cannon Group, who were taking a great risk making an uncommercial film that nearly fell apart due to financial difficulties within the company, the end result is a semi-autobiographical treatment of Bukowski's life on the fringes of society desperately searching for the next drink in between finding his creative literary wings, or not.

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Despite what negative commentary Bukowski may have had for the casting of (at the time) heartthrob Mickey Rourke in the central role of Henry Chinaski, like The Wrestler it is a role Rourke is born to play.  From his mild limp, crusty exterior with a craggy face marred by cuts and bruises, unkempt hygiene and a jutting lower jaw, Rourke provides an astonishing physical performance which is arguably closer to Bukowski's demeanor than he himself wished to admit.  Joining Rourke's side is Faye Dunaway as Wanda Wilcox, another crusty and cantankerous barfly he meets along the way.  When the booze hazy perspective of Barfly's troubled but perceptive hero crosses paths with a well to do female publisher played by Alice Krige, the film becomes an existential conflict between opening up to the possibilities of a wealthier way of life and simply staying in the quagmire of drinking his days away.  Less a plot driven film than a day in the life of the misadventures and self-discoveries of a self-appointed boozer, Barfly plays like a larger than life confessional of a difficult but gifted artist at crossroads.  Do I pursue my innate talents or do I drink yet another glass of beer?  One of the ways the film works so well is that it doesn't pass judgment on Bukowski's alter ego, but rather regards his modus operandi with keen distance.  On one level, you're horrified by Chinaski's nightly routine of punch-drunk barfights but on another level entirely you're just slightly amused by his antics.  

"To all my friends!"
The making of the film is almost as legendary as the life story of the author himself.  Reportedly, Cannon Pictures was in financial free fall and nearly scrapped the film before production began.  In an effort to rescue the film, a much-discussed incident occurred in Cannon's office in which director Barbet Schroeder, that filmmaker who fearlessly stood inches away from General Idi Amin Dada many years prior, went into CEO Menahem Golan's office with a Black and Decker chainsaw and threatened to cut off his own fingers one at a time for every day Barfly did not get made.  Enlisting the help of Fred Roos and Francis Ford Coppola from Zoetrope Studios, the mind game worked and Menahem put Barfly back on the schedule with no further interference.  Also bending to Schroeder's will was the decision to scrap Runaway Train composer Trevor Jones in favor of Bukowski's penchant for classical music, hence a majority of the film's soundtrack being completely operatic in form.  Making further waves in the industry was the invention of the Kino Flo unit, which was designed specifically for Barfly for portable lighting in hard to get at places, a cinematographic tool which quickly became an industry standard for years to come.  

Entered into the 1987 Cannes Film Festival for the coveted Palme d'Or (the award ultimately went to Under the Sun of Satan), Barfly became a critically revered classic and as it stands today is a wholly original piece of cinema.  Second to Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is a portrait of an artist in the throes of creative genius while being stymied by his own unique brand of addiction.  It shines a spotlight on a whole generation of homelessness creeping through dark alleyways in search of the next drink to pass the time and the next fight to engage in.  Chinaksi tussles without relent with all of his fellow barflies and notably with bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone) who has had more than enough of this rowdy and intoxicated loser.  The odd thing is, Chinaski's cuts and bruises aren't all that dissimilar from the alcohol fueled battles depicted in the Australian drama Wake in Fright in which a brutal headlock and a punch are not different than a friendly hug.  Barfly is that rare film which allows the viewer to truly experience the short sighted misadventures of an alcoholic with the talent to rise above his dire circumstances but not the desire.  Revolutionary in cinematic form yet speaking a language we know all too well the moment we sip on a glass of beer, it is a film like no other and contrary to the author's belief depicted in the novel Hollywood, Barfly manages to allow viewers to see clearly through Charles Bukowski's intoxicated, cantankerous and strangely wise pair of eyes.


- Andrew Kotwicki