This was actually the very first movie review I ever wrote and published, in Berkeley’s campus paper The Daily Californian. I trashed it! Retrospectively, I attribute much of my unwarranted disdain to personal bitterness, since as someone that had actually lived in residential hotels amongst the sort of desperate social misfits populating Charles Bukowski’s real and fictional worlds, I thought he was “glamourizing” what I knew to be a rather depressing, dispiriting lifestyle.
I was wrong, of course, and since then Bukowski has become one of my very favorite writers. He wrote the screenplay for this portrait of his own life as a young, struggling writer, and it’s both hilarious and harrowing. Faye Dunaway is a standout as one of the women in his tumultuous, impoverished life. On a personal note: I knew star Mickey Rourke well back then, and in fact I was working as his personal assistant when he was offered this film. I sent him a copy of my review, and he told me later framed it!
Barton Fink (1991)
This is my favorite Coen Brothers film, largely because of the subject matter: in 1941, a successful New York playwright (John Turturro) moves out to Hollywood to write screenplays, becoming involved with a megalomaniacal studio boss (Michael Lerner); an alcoholic, William Faulkner-esque author (John Mahoney) and his neurotic wife (Judy Davis); and most memorably a traveling salesman (John Goodman) who is quite obviously insane and possibly worse.
Though it’s a satirical and at time surrealistic horror noir, many writers will find Fink’s existential artistic angst and struggles with creative compromise for the sake of commercialism quite compelling.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Judy Davis also co-stars in David Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic yet amazingly faithful adaptation of William Burroughs' largely autobiographical novel, which defies conventional storytelling in favor of hallucinatory narratives involving drug abuse, accidental homicide, talking bugs, cosmic and political conspiracies, exotic Far Eastern locales, and of course, the everyday challenge of writing.
Though the stylized material is intentionally nightmarish (if often hysterical) and essentially inaccessible to the mainstream mentality, the 1950s-era “Beat” backdrop for much of the action is exciting for writers to vicariously visit, and star Peter Weller (RoboCop) does a sensational impression of Burroughs as the doppelganger protagonist.
Though it’s not as well known as Barfly, this film based on one of Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical novels is in some ways even more insightful when it comes to the writing life. Once again the “plot” focuses on Bukowski’s youth, working various odd jobs while romancing his emotionally and financially unstable female counterparts. As in Barfly and all of his fiction, the main character is named “Henry Chinaski.” Matt Dillon, despite his matinee idol handsomeness, is incredibly authentic in the starring role.
Writers will also have fun figuring out who would play them as a struggling writer, pre-fame, even if they never actually get famous. Movies like this remind you that you have to start somewhere when climbing that ladder to success, usually at the very bottom rung.
Ask the Dust (2006)
Bukowski’s literary idol was John Fante, a fellow Los Angeles scribe (though transplanted from Colorado) who was essentially his literary equivalent back in The Great Depression. Later a successful screenwriter, Fante’s ultra-meta, proletariat novels like this one were later reprinted by Bukowski’s publisher, Black Sparrow Press, earning him new generations of fans.
This seriocomic film adaptation starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek was actually filmed in South Africa even though it’s set in 1930s L.A., but Oscar-winning writer-director Robert Towne (Chinatown) manages to replicate the ambience of that era while retaining the bittersweet romantic elements of the story, which writers will find both exhilarating and heartbreaking.
The Rum Diary (2011)
Though it bombed at the box office, Johnny Depp’s second role basically playing Hunter S. Thompson – based on the “gonzo” author’s second novel that wasn’t published until 1998 – is a very earnest effort, if not nearly as wild and crazy as the much more psychedelic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then this story, set in 1959 Puerto Rico and based on Thompson’s own experiences as a journalist in that time and place, is much more “literary” in tone and subject matter, though it does include some of the colorful writer’s offbeat humor.
Depp is quite dapper as the younger version of Thompson, and this was also the movie where he met his soon to be ex-wife, Amber Heard.
On the Road (2012)
Though this film was “in development for decades,” and author Jack Kerouac reportedly wrote to Marlon Brandon after the book’s publication requesting he star in the film version, the rambling, picaresque nature of the narrative proved too daunting until executive producer Francis Coppola, who had been spearheading this impossible effort for years, finally got it done, with mixed critical results. Many panned the fact that large chunks of the book were left out, though the cast (including Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, and Kristen Stewart as MaryLou) was widely praised, though also with their share of detractors.
Basically, any project this long in the making is going to be subjected to pre-existing expectations, and judged accordingly. But I found it to be a fairly absorbing if meandering adaptation of material that, like it’s fellow Beat literary landmark Naked Lunch, was virtually impossible to transcribe intact to the screen.
Anyway, I’m still hoping one of my own books makes it to the big (or small) screen one day. Meantime, I’ll keep writing, and so should you. Cheers.