Barfly

A drunk, our hero, shuffles into a dive in the seediest part of Los Angeles. He sees a woman at the bar who looks about as broken-down as himself. He sidles over next to her and orders a beer. Her conversation starter: “I can’t stand people, I hate them. Don’t you?” He replies thoughtfully, “No…but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Somehow this exchange sets the tone for their friendship, which is the main focus of Barfly, a weirdly wonderful new film written by Charles Bukowski and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Fans of Bukowski’s lowlife writings will recognize his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a down-and-outer who spends his days and nights drinking steadily, getting into fights, and scribbling down stories on stray pieces of paper. He’s actually reasonably content with this existence, until he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), the woman at the bar.

She, as much a drunk as he, rouses a few relatively noble instincts: Henry even takes a shot at getting a job. Meanwhile, Henry’s being pursued by a literary agent (Alice Krige) who wants to buy some of his stories.

Bukowski’s screenplay, and French director Schroeder’s light touch with it, consistently finds the humor and poetry of these gutter-level lives. Bukowski doesn’t sentimentalize or apologize for anything; he also doesn’t spare us any of the grunts or groans or other bodily functions that occur in such a lifestyle. Frequently a line of dialogue will soar too poetically, as with Henry’s observation that Wanda looks like “some kinda distressed goddess,” but this becomes part of the weave of the fabric.

Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller manage a visual delicacy, too; in the way the afternoon light spills into the bar when the door is opened, or the cool night that surrounds Henry when he bends down to a fire hydrant to wash his face after a fight.

Faye Dunaway takes on her uncharacteristically disheveled role and comes out with her best performance in years. There’s also nice supporting work by J.C. Quinn and Frank Stallone (yes, Sylvester’s songwriter brother) as the good and bad bartenders at the Golden Horn, Henry’s hangout.

And Mickey Rourke…well, Mickey Rourke has got to be seen in this one. We know about Rourke’s penchant for roles that are grungy and unkempt, as evidenced lately in Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying. But Rourke gets something completely new here, a wholecloth performance of rolling gait, bruised knuckles, and lilting speech. His line delivery is a singsong that plays devilish tricks on your expectations of how dialogue should be read, and also suggests a background of hurt and humor for his character. You may love or hate this performance, but either way it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

I feel pretty good about this review. There must be some kind of story about how Faye Dunaway got into this unlikely project, and I do not know what that is. Man, you see Rourke’s inventive work here and wonder what might have been.

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