Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, 1987)

“He said he was going to cut off his finger if I didn’t make his film.” – producer Menahem Golan.

“Terrific.  Completely original from beginning to end.” – Roger Ebert, SISKEL & EBERT.

Drafthouse Films LogoAmerican poet and novelist extraordinaire Charles Bukowski drew upon his own life to script this story that tickles and jabs the social underbelly of booze, bars and brave madness.  Downtrodden writer Henry (Mickey Rourke) and distressed goddess Wanda (Faye Dunaway) may be wedded to their bar stools, but they like each other’s company and that says a lot, but when a young publisher smitten with Henry’s outsider mystique appears, Henry must choose between life as a literary lion or a freewheeling alley cat.  Barbet Schroeder directs this “classic one-of-a-kind comedy” (Vincent Canby, The New York Times), offering a giddy, whisky-soaked vision of life on the skids and the proud individuals who refuse society’s demands.

Special Features:

Golden Horn Edition – Package Includes:

  • Barfly on Blu-ray or Standard DVD booklet featuring over 6 hours of bonus material!
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film on 1080p, 720p, and mobile/tablet formats
  • 27″ x 40″ reversible poster
  • Charles Bukowski’s novel Hollywood, inspired by the making of Barfly

Summarizing Barfly‘s plot is something of an empty task.  Mickey Rourke’s busted writer/drunk, Henry Chinaski, frequents The Golden Horn, a dive bar where he drinks, hangs out with other drunks, and picks fights with the night shift bartender, Eddie (Frank Stallone).  After enduring a savage beating by Eddie and being ousted from his favourite haunt for the night, Henry heads over to another joint where he picks up Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a wasted looking blonde in a worn out power suit.  Henry’s attraction for Wanda is cemented as soon as the bartender tells him “she’s crazy,” and Wanda becomes equally enamoured with Henry notwithstanding her warning that she may follow any other man with a fifth of booze should Henry ever leave her alone.  While Henry shifts his life from his flop house room to co-habitating in Wanda’s dingy apartment, he is tracked down by a private dick (Jack Nance) and is introduced to Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige), a young and beautiful editor with The Contemporary Review of Art, Music, and Literature, who has become familiar with Henry’s writing and is attracted to his wild, uncompromised masculinity.  Henry toys with Tully’s offer to publish him, happily accepting payment for his work, drinking her high class hooch, and even sharing a bed, but he has no real interest in her “cage with golden bars” and returns to his life of principled impoverishment.  That’s roughly what happens in Barfly, but it offers little in conveying why it’s so watchable and so thoroughly satisfying.

With a screenplay penned by the godfather of dirty realism, American poet and writer Charles Bukowski, French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder vowed to make Barfly with complete fidelity to the writer’s script, making only changes approved by Bukowski while the author was on set.  Inspired by Bukowski’s own experiences as a barfly, his script offers tightly woven depictions of threadbare lives that are full of weariness, riot, and small, precious joys.  Rourke and Dunaway are equally brilliant in portraying these somewhat unlikely lovers united by what Bukowski calls a “common discouragement with humanity.”  Rourke uses the unusual cadence of Bukowski’s diction and the strange, hitchy angles of the poet’s body as a foundation onto which he lays over matinée idol swagger.  Bukowski initially criticised Rourke’s tendency to show off, then retracted it, embracing Rourke’s faithfulness to the character’s spirit while also bringing a kind of personal zest to the role.  Rourke’s tough guy good looks, naughty smile, and Oscar-clip mugging might intervene into Barfly‘s shabby atmosphere too much for some, but it assists in bolstering Henry’s apparent power in attracting women.  Dunaway’s Wanda is a work of exhausted art, having little interest in anything but drinking (and therefore drawn to Henry’s low maintenance demands of her and life) but still proud enough to defend her own modest degree of self-respect and her claim to Henry’s companionship.  Thank goodness Dunaway was eventually dissuaded through test footage to perform without make-up.

Barbet Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller beautifully integrate their Hollywood stars into the squalid world of Barfly through a production design that does true justice to Bukowski’s personally inspired script.  The world of Barfly is the world of actual barflies.  The drunks in The Golden Horn are the drunks local to that bar, and the alley where Henry and Eddie brawl is truly just out back.  Even Wanda’s apartment block was the same building where Bukowski and the real-life counterpart to Wanda had lived (although it was unknown to cast and crew until the poet remembered during filming).  The seediness of Barfly is written across the face of every half-drunk old-timer and soaked into the stained wall-paper of each grimy locale, however the film’s greatest textural success rests in its sound design.  The film’s material authenticity is best observed by considering its sonic landscape and attending to its horizon rather than its immediate forefront.  Barfly is full of unglamourous urban noise like car alarms and sirens, and is perhaps best observed when Tully goes into a bank, leaving Henry with time to briefly converse with a daytime prostitute soliciting at street side.  The sounds of the prostitute’s calls and accusations never leaves the scene, although it often resides at its auditory edges, never suppressed by dialogue between Tully and Henry and still discernible if considered.  Life is always going on in Barfly and, like the”abusive” couple living next door to Wanda, it refuses to be suppressed, particularly when we might desire it most.

Part of Barfly‘s appeal likely resides in its opportunity for cine-slumming, and MMC! is not immune to the allure of crossing over to the wrong side of the filmic tracks to safely mingle with the underclass risk free, feel socially enlightened without actually getting dirty, and vicariously reject the social conventions that we abide simply by watching such movies in the first place.  We should take care about how we speak about films like Barfly, Lionel Rogosin’s stunning On the Bowery (1956), and others.  Barfly succeeds by offering an array of drunkenness, and it should be noted that Bukowski maintained that “[w]hether you’re an alcoholic and whether you function are two different questions.”  For most of the barflies, their alcoholism is a tragedy no matter what humorous expression or behaviour is exhibited.  Scenes such as where a elderly bar patron finds a novel solution to the shakes and where another takes special pride in providing a lady with a light simultaneously offer laughs and humanity.  Wanda may use drink as a means of pleasure and relief, but she still exhibits enough love, compassion, and fight to suggest that a greater happiness beyond alcohol exists within her if properly nurtured.  Henry’s alcoholism is different, taken to an alluring extreme and representing a form of political and social rebellion.  Henry actively opposes society’s demands that he has “gotta do something” or “be something.”  He fights Eddie because he symbolizes everything that disgusts him – “Obviousness.  Unoriginal macho energy.  Ladies man.”  (The casting of Frank Stallone here is inspired, being a kind of poor man’s emulation of the manliness embodied at the time by his older brother Sylvester.)  For Henry, his liminal existence has profound meaning (“the treasure of my escape”) but it is a freedom that is devoted to staunch resistance to the conventional and the socially acceptable, bringing with it its own set of limitations.  Henry’s fight, for as entertaining as it is to watch, is not the fight of his fellow drunks, at least not one they take on consciously.  There’s only one barfly referenced in the title and Rourke’s bar stool prophet is certain one of a kind.

barfly_1987Bukowski’s reputation in Europe helped make Schroeder’s film an abiding success, and, in turn, may have contributed to Barfly‘s cult following in North America.  The film’s scarcity has likely also helped, as Barfly‘s Region 1 DVD is now long out of print.  A reissue of the film would likely be a celebrated event for cinephiles, making the film’s absence from hard media a perplexing mystery.  Barfly is often cited as a worthy title for a Criterion Collection release, but there’s just something about it that screams “Drafthouse” to us.  Perhaps it’s the label’s willingness to champion specific films, something that may be needed if rights or licensing issues impede Barfly‘s distribution.  Perhaps it’s that mission statement – “Destroying the barriers between grindhouse and art-house” – that puts us in mind of Barfly.  Whatever it is, Barfly and Drafthouse Films seem as suited as Henry and Wanda, and we’d like to see the label bring Schroeder’s film back to American cinemas and living rooms.  Barfly has some great production art, but we particularly love this boozy, neon-lit vision of ’80s moviedom and think it would provide an excellent cover treatment.

Credits:  We’ve kicked off this package by reclaiming the director’s commentary and the “I Drink, I Gamble, I Write …” featurette from the now out of print DVD.  Our cover summary is also adapted from the OOP DVD’s own packaging.  We’ve gone all out in celebrating Bukowski by including Taylor Hackford’s 60-minute documentary for PBS, Bukowski (1973), and Barbet Schroeder’s now also out of print collection of monologues, The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1987).   We’ve further included some well-known articles and related writings on Barfly for the booklet and have imagined a new interview with the director, the producer, and the distributor that is inspired by a 2010 Q&A session at the Lincoln Center during Barfly‘s screening as part of the Cannon Films Canon retrospective.  The Menahem Golan quote refers to Barbet Schroeder’s attendance to the Cannon mogul’s office upon hearing that the film’s release might be delayed due to financial problems and his threat to cut off his finger on the spot with power saw if Golan failed to abide by the represented schedule.  Schroeder calls the story “80% true,” mainting he only intended to cut off the end of his little finger, then do a press conference, following which he would try and have a doctor sew the finger back on.  Schroeder states, “I just did not have the time to go to a lawyer, that is why I had to choose the firm Black & Decker.”

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