If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
In the biochemistry class during my naive undergraduate years, the professor jokingly said the capability of metabolizing alcohol depends on our genetic makeup. Thanks to the variations in the genes, some people can produce more enzymes or more active enzymes to take care of alcohol in their body. They can be heavy drinkers, or the ones less susceptible to the hazards caused by alcoholism than their fellow drunks.
That may explain the existence of Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), the "laureate of American lowlifes" who lived a relatively long life despite many days and nights of bottles and women at the bars. As Stephen King says in his insightful book "On Writing," writing usually has no business with drinking ("Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do."). Sometime there are exceptions like Bukowski. Drinking and writing always came together to him, and he had no problem with that.
Based on the semi-autobiographical screenplay written by Bukowski, Barbet Schroeder's "Barfly"(1987) is a love story intertwined with drinking and writing. Throughout the movie, he and others drink whenever they get the chance. Nothing much is changed much at the end of the story, and we know he will challenge again another day of bottles. It looks self-destructive to outsiders like us, but we come to accept this is how he wants to live; he is content, if not happy, with this seedy lifestyle as long as he has some time to write - and drink, of course.
The daily life of Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) in LA is pretty simple. At night, he drinks a lot at his regular bar, The Golden Horn. During day, he does some errands like delivering sandwiches, to earn daytime drinks. Daytime bartender Jim (J.C. Quinn) is sympathetic to him, but nighttime bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone) hates his guts, and Henry does not like him, either. After looking around the bars on the night streets of LA at the beginning, the camera glides into the bar, and then we see them in a fistfight at the alley behind the bar. Between all these activities, he somehow finds some time to write short stories or poetry on the papers while listening to the classic music on radio.
On one day, when he is forced to go into another bar for another fistfight with its resulting bruised face and knuckles, he comes across Wanda (Faye Dunaway). He approaches "the goddess of distress," and they casually talk with each other.
Wanda: "I can't stand people. I hate people."Henry: "Oh Yeah?" Wanda: "You hate them?"Henry: "No, but I seem to feel better when they are not around."
As fellow drunks, their alcoholic bond is instantly formed. They go to her apartment, with the ears of green corn they stole. They begin living together. As drinking mates, they are frank about what they are: "I don't ever want to fall in love." "Don't worry. Nobody has ever loved me yet."
But it was the love at the first glass from the beginning. They warm up to each other - while drinking continuously as usual. And then the situation becomes a little complicated when a wealthy publisher named Tully (Alice Krige) is interested in Henry as well as his works. Henry does not mind Tully coming in his life, but, to Wanda, she is someone who must go away.
I try to describe the plot, but I do not think I describe well the film itself because the plot does not matter much in "Barfly". When I watched it at the 2010 Ebertfest, I was a little surprised by how the movie was far simpler and more straightforward than I remembered from first watching it in 2003. It is simply about the daily routines of drunks; it is same hangover, same day, same bar, same people, and same drink (and occasional bar brawl) in the evening.
This sounds quite gloomy, but the life is not always grim for them. They are unpleasant, but there are interesting people to liven up their bar, and, at least in Bukowski and Henry's view, it is not so bad to spend some time with them. There is a sullen middle aged woman who usually sits at the same spot; she does not have anything nice to say about others. There is an old timer who has problems with shaky hands that he solves it in an inventive way. There is an old street walker who frequents men's room with her customers; she seems to be popular despite her age. And there are other colorful people in the bar; the more I think about them, the funnier they are.
The movie is also peppered with several humorous moments, such as when the paramedics are called twice on one day to the same apartment (they are called again on the next day). Believe or not, according to the director Barbet Schroeder, that hilarious situation and the other happenings in the movie were really based on what happened in Bukowski's life. The dialogue between the characters is enjoyable to hear. Without being sentimental, that is the last thing you expect from Bukowski; it is terse and effective both in dramatic and poetic sense.
As a consequence, we have constant fun from the interactions between Rourke and Dunaway. With precise mannerisms of swagger and low, slurred speech, Rourke is terrific as a writer/boozer with a shabby but stubborn dignity who prefers to stay in Skid Row rather than live affluently. Bukowski was certainly not the nicest person in the world (just check YouTube and you'll find how mean he can be), and neither is Henry. But, like Bukowski, Henry is at least honest about what he is, and Rourke had that decadent charm of a young misfit, one of reasons that make his performance more natural and compelling. You probably don't want to live with him for lifetime, but you may like him, and probably admire him for his integrity.
In case of Dunaway, her career was down from its prime during the 1960 and 1970s. It was not her fault, but her choices had been pretty bad around the time she starred in the movie; I dearly remember watching her chewing the scenes in "Supergirl" (1984) on TV during my childhood. "Barfly" was one of few bright spots in her late career where she got the chance to fully utilize her talent. While showing some tenderness inside Wanda in the scenes with Rourke, Dunaway does not hesitate to show her abrasive side. When she says, "If I find the one you went to the bed with, I'll rip all her pants off," she really means it, and she sticks to her words.
With help from the cinematographer Robbie Muller, frequent collaborator of Wim Wenders, the Schroeder creates a vivid, naturalistic atmosphere to give a specific physical sense of time and space. Although Bukowski's story is based on his experience during the 1960s, Schroeder wanted a feeling of timelessness (if there isn't any significant evolutionary change in the human race in the future, drunks will be always drunks, won't they?). He decided to set the story in a contemporary background. His film was wholly shot in the real bars and other authentic locations in LA, and the extras were played by real barflies who lived in the hotel above the bar shown in the movie. It was not intentional, but the apartment building where Wanda lives turned out to be the one where Bukowski and his lover, the real-life counterpart of Wanda, actually lived. The soundtrack entirely consists of source music played on radio or jukebox instead of a score, and that approach more accentuates the realism in the film.
Schroeder was very determined to make this film for a long time (in the Q & A session after screening, he told us it took seven years to initiate the production; the shooting took only 30 days). Maybe you have heard about it, but there is the infamous story about how he prevented its production from being halted by the Cannon Company, the studio which was supposed to finance the film. He visited the company office with a battery-powered portable chainsaw. He threatened to cut off one of his fingers, and, from what I have heard from others, he went to the point of turning the chainsaw on.
When I met him at Ebertfest 2010, all of his ten fingers were all right like his film. I'll never forget him for giving me a wrong clue about the name of the movie he could not remember. I calmly pointed out to him that it is "Basic Instinct," not "Fatal Attraction", that was made by the director who made that awful film set in Las Vegas.
"Barfly" holds its place well among the memorable movies from the 1980s. With its sincere, unpretentious view on its hero, it ultimately comes to us as something optimistic in its own, shall I say, alcoholic way. Many films about alcoholism have depressing sides, but, for some people like Henry or Wanda, being at the bottom with bottles is not as miserable as we think. In spite of having some bad days frequently, they will happily go through endless cycles like we see in the movie. The film made me feel a lot better when I was quite exhausted during the last night of Ebertfest 2010, and, after rediscovering this small gem, I lost myself a bit among people at the night party - with a cup of gin and tonic.
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