Masterpiece Memo: Barfly

Barfly is a film that I have loved for a long time. I can’t remember how old I was when I saw it, or what year it was, but I knew what I was watching was something to behold. It’s not an overly impressive film the way The Godfather or Star Wars is, but in its nuances and subtext, it’s so great.

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This film was released in 1987, during a time when franchises were becoming popular and more of the norm. By 1987 there already was Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Rambo, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the first films from The Terminator and Back to the Future. Barfly was not a direct response to this consumerism, but might as well have been. It was a small budget film, with a director that most people are not familiar with, Barbet Schroeder, who was born in 1941 in Iran. The film’s small scale is one of the main reasons why I love it so much. It feels like a film that is a secret, and something to hold close to the chest, but now I’m ready to share it with everyone and I implore everyone to see it if they haven’t yet.

So what is Barfly about? It’s based on a little portion of time in the life of poet and author, Charles Bukowski. Bukowski’s writing was heavily influenced by the societal, cultural, and economic climate of his hometown of Los Angeles. His writing was about the day to day lives of impoverished Americans, the process of writing, being an alcoholic, failed relationships with woman, and the struggles of working and keeping a job. Bukowski wrote the script for Barfly, and then worked with director Barbet Schroeder to turn it into a film.

Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, who is Bukowski’s alter ego in his novels. I really loved how Rourke portrays Henry. He’s got this long dirty hair, beat up knuckles, and he walks like an ape. Plus, his line delivery is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. So anyway, Henry likes to frequent a seedy corner bar called The Golden Horn and has struck up a rivalry with the bartender who he gets into fights with. The bartender Eddie is a symbol of everything that Henry hates. To Henry, Eddie symbolizes obviousness, unoriginal macho energy, and it disgusts him. Henry has a pretty laissez-faire attitude about life. He’s only interested in living his life one day or even, one beer at a time. When being asked about being a drunk, his response is “Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk.” Another time, when a stranger asks him who he is, he answers with “Ah, the eternal question. The eternal answer… I don’t know.” I find Henry and his outlook on life to be rather refreshing. He is a man who truly knows how to not take life too seriously, and has seemed to figure out how to survive without having to give in to societal norms.

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So then, after getting into a fight with Eddie, Henry is asked to leave the bar, and he goes across the street to another bar where he meets Wanda, played by Faye Dunaway. After sharing a drink he and Wanda go back to her apartment, where the strike up a romance. She invites Henry to move in with her, and it’s up to one of them to get a job so they can pay rent and continue to drink and be together. I’ll just say without spoiling anything that this is a challenging thing for them, and craziness ensues.

I love the look and feel of Barfly, and have often wondered where in Los Angeles it takes place. I find Los Angeles to be an interesting place to have a film setting because it’s a sprawling metropolis filled with pocket neighborhoods, and many differing types of people and cultures. Barfly is almost completely set amongst the bar scene and seedy apartments where even the paint on the wall is chipped. The people in the film are either bums, patrons of bars, or as I describe them “clean, rich” people who stick out like sore thumbs.

In the third act of the film, Henry meets Tully who is a manager of a local magazine that Henry has been sending his writing to. Finally one of his short stories has caught the eyes of Tully and she seeks him out to let him know what his story will be published and that she is compensating him for it.

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Barfly is filled with wonderful performances, especially Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. It also has a great soundtrack. The film’s theme song is “Hip Hug-Her”, which is performed by Booker T. & the M.G.s. It’s a bluesy pop song that is perfect for the mood that is set in the film. I find it interesting that the music in the film changes so keenly to match the mood of each scene, and helps the film resonate more. I also find Barfly to be a really funny film filled with such great one-liners, such as “He hates help. He’d piss on you if he could.” and “20 bucks! No one can swallow paste like I can.” It’s crude humor mostly, but I love that sort of thing.

So, can Barfly be called a “masterpiece”? I certainly think so, but I ask that you see it for yourself and make your own determination on that. Right now it’s available to rent on iTunes, and that’s the best place to see it.

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