Italian journalist Silvia Bizio spent a long, wine-soaked evening with writer and poet Charles Bukowski at his San Pedro, Calif., home in 1981. A camera crew shot the interview on Umati tapes, and they have recently been digitized, leading to the new documentary, “You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski.”
Directed by Matteo Borgardt, the film’s heart is, of course, the scenes of the chain-smoking Bukowski, sitting in his living room and answering Bizio’s questions about literature, sex and humanity. But Borgardt also has taken new shots in Super8 of scenes of seedy Los Angeles as well as inserted audio of Bukowski reading some of his poetry.
As fans of Bukowski know, he was the poet laureate of the downtrodden, the homeless, the disenfranchised. So the new scenes of Los Angeles show that part of the city.
Throughout much of the film, Bukowski is simply seated on his living room couch with his then-girlfriend and later wife, Linda Lee Beighle. He’s gruff, misanthropic — and funny, too. He repeatedly expresses his disdain for writers, saying that “they’re pricks” when not at their typewriters.
“Talking to a writer is like drinking water in a bathtub,” he says. Nevertheless, he has praise for four writers: Dostoevsky, John Fante (“Ask the Dust”), D.H. Lawrence and the controversial French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. He has a couple of nice things to say about Camus, but otherwise he finds the rest of the lot somewhat lacking.
Bukowski also talks a lot about sex, using the “f word” over and over. But in his contrary way, he says that sex isn’t all that important. Bizio looks at him in amazement and asks if he really believes that. He says he really does, even after writing about it so much. “That’s what sells, my dear,” he says.
The context of this long interview is important. At the time, Bukowski was well-known and beloved in Europe, and Bizio had just finished a master’s degree at UCLA sand was working as a U.S. correspondent for the Italian daily, Il Lavora di Genova.
In press notes, Bizio says that her encounter with Bukowski that night “will always remain a special moment in my life and career.” And she talks about finding the dusty video-cassettes in storage. She then shared them with her son, who’s the film’s director, Borgardt.
Borgardt took the approach of letting viewers “create their own idea of who Bukowski was just by listening to him.”
“I wanted the audience to feel as if they were part of that evening, as if they were sitting on the couch besides Bukowski, drinking and listening to his thoughts,” he says.
The title of the film, “You Never Had It,” is taken from the final line of Bukowski’s poem, ”Those Sons of Bitches,” from the 1972 collection “Mockingbird Wish Me Luck.” And as you might expect, the line is meant to be misanthropic. “One tombstone for the mess, / I say, / humanity, you never had it / from the beginning.”
Part of Bukowski’s misanthropy — as well as his drive — probably came from his troubled relationship with his father. At the time of the interview, Bukowski was working on “Ham on Rye,” the 1982 book that is described as his most difficult. In that book, Bukowski described his father, a U.S. Army soldier who was sent to Germany after World War I, as abusive and violent.
Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920, and he died in Los Angeles in 1994.
Kino Lorber and the Slamdance Film Festival are partnering on the virtual theatrical release of “You Never Had It.” In Austin, it starts streaming on Aug. 7 at the Violet Crown website, austin.violetcrown.com.