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Barbet Schroeder
Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige, Jack Nance, J.C. Quinn
Charles Bukowski

Rated R.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono
English, Spanish, French, Japanese

Runtime: 99 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 9/3/2002

• Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Director Barbet Schroeder
• Documentary: "I Drink, I Gamble, and I Write: The Making-Of Barfly"
• Excerpts from Schroeder's The Charles Bukowski Tapes
• Theatrical Trailer


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Barfly (1987)

Reviewed by Blake Kenny

As strange as it my seem, the first time I saw Barfly – (and this is a true story), was after I came home from an evening of drinking out at a nightclub with my old roommate. We stumbled into the house at about 2:00 am, with probably more alcohol in our systems than there was blood. Needless to say, as was often the case with the two of us – we were still wide awake and not even close to passing out yet. So we both cracked another cold one and sat back to kick up our heals. For a little background noise we flicked on the TV as well. Lo and behold, there was Barfly. We paid a little attention when the movie began, and as it turned out, that was all that was needed to keep up glued to it until it ended. For some reason, given our present state of mind, it was exactly the kind of movie we wanted to watch just then. We both laughed at it’s true to life nature, but mostly we just laughed at Mickey Rourke’s incredible portrayal of Henry.

Equally strange was the fact that I saw this movie about 2-3 more times over the next 3 months. Each time it seemed to be on very late at night, and each time it seemed to be on after I came home from a night of partying. Was this a coincidence? Probably not. I suppose it just the kind of junk the most cable channels like to play during the wee hours. It goes without saying that I watched it each of these times as well. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about this film, but I thought it was fantastic. It was something different from the normal trash I was used to seeing late at night. My girlfriend thinks it’s the most ridiculous and stupid movie she’s ever seen in her life, and to this day, still fails to understand my attraction to it.

So now we fast forward 6-7 years and here I am with the golden opportunity to review the DVD. Not only was I looking forward to reviewing this movie because I hadn’t seen it in a while, but it was also a movie that I felt strongly – belonged in my collection and deserved to be reviewed by someone who appreciated its startling authenticity.

The story of Barfly revolves around our lead character Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke). Henry is a seemingly uninspired, unmotivated individual who also happens to be a chronic alcoholic. In fact the only time in the film when Henry doesn’t seem to be pissed to the gills is the first minute after he gets out of bed – right before he pours himself his first drink.

What’s endearing about Henry is the fact that you can tell he’s a well read individual. Get past the vapours of scotch and water coming off his breath and you can tell that he’s actually a pretty smart guy. This becomes apparent to the viewer when you learn that Henry is also an aspiring author and poet. He has a gift for words and as we learn later in the film, his natural talents with the pen might be all that is needed to end his life on the streets and move him up to the higher classes.

However, this isn’t until after he meets a ‘distressed goddess’ named Wanda (Faye Dunaway). After getting into a fight with his arch nemesis Eddie (Frank Stallone) – who also happens to be one of the bartenders at his favourite watering hole, Henry heads out to a new bar on the next street corner. Wanda as you might expect is also a raging drunk. She’s virtually a female representation of himself - although she’s perhaps a little more high strung, high maintenance and somewhat unstable. The two hit it off immediately. After a single night of drinking together, Wanda throws him a key and Henry moves into her apartment. After all, ‘two can pay the rent better than one’ – and the money they save on rent means more money they can spend on booze.

Events change in Henry’s life when he’s discovered by the owner of a prestigious Los Angeles magazine. A woman named Tully (Alice Krige) who seems to want to take Henry away from his sad little lifestyle so he can concentrate on his writing. Seems she discovered his flair for writing when she received some of his poems in the mail. Needless to say, Henry was probably so drunk at the time that he doesn’t remember sending her anything at. As it turns out one of his works have been selected to appear in the next issues of her magazine – and she has some money for him. Hmm…I wonder what he’ll spend it on?

The question throughout the film is very simple. Will Henry give up his life on the streets with his romantic interest: Wanda, living from day to day in search of their next drink, or will he go with Tully and perfect his craft as a writer – and perhaps make something of his life? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

The thing I enjoy most about Barfly, is that even though we all know alcoholism is a very serious problem for a lot of people, this film chooses to look at the issue from a very light hearted perspective. Instead of cramming moral issues down our throats, the film makers have elected to make this film into a comedy. You never really feel sorry for Henry’s position, primarily because it’s obvious that he’s perfectly happy with his crumby little life. He’s a drunk and he both knows and accepts this. At no time does he ever consider giving up the bottle and to be honest, at no time did I want him to.

In many ways it was difficult for me to nail down the plot of this film. Truth is, the plot is somewhat irrelevant. This movie plays out more like a character study than anything else. Henry and Wanda live together with hardly a care in the world. They spend their entire time in the film stumbling from one silly drunken situation into another – and somehow it works – couple that with their somewhat dysfunctional, yet loving relationship and the movie just feels right. It’s funny, while I can’t imagine living like that myself – these tow seem content with their situation.

While the film may be perceived by many to be nothing more than a serious drama, the comedy is definitely evident – all be it subtle. I just found myself laughing at the absurdity of their lives. Every day seemed for them to be an adventure. In all honesty, there’s no where near as much excitement going on in my own life – and while I will never understand how people can live like that and still be happy, I did find myself somewhat envious of the freedom their lives possessed. Still, if I had the choice between total freedom and a job that allowed me to feed the monkey on my back - that is collecting DVD’s – I’d take the job.

For a film that’s really quite simple when you get down to it, you realize that this movie would have been nothing if not for the sensational performances by our two leads -Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. They are both so incredible in this movie that you might find yourself wondering if they were actually bombed during its production. I’ve seen a few Mickey Rourke movies in my time and I’ve never seen him better than he is in Barfly. He takes a rather serious problem in many peoples lives and somehow still manages to make you laugh about it. Without these performances this film would have been nothing, but because of it – a simple plotline excels.

As an after thought, it’s also the realism of this film that helps to make Barfly work. The apartments these people live in are disgusting and the bars they hang out in are seedy. However, even more realistic than that was the great cast of extras. The decrepit, eccentric and down on their luck folk that hang out in these bars are so convincing that it’s almost scary. In fact, just listen to the Director’s audio commentary and you will learn that even though many of the people who appeared in the film were indeed actors, some were actually real barflies who lived in hotel next to the bar the movie was shot in.

Like myself, you might come to discover that the realism of Barfly might has some minor resonance within your own life. If you have ever walked through the scummier areas of your own town or city, you have probably seen these people before. Every hometown seems to have a few of these characters stumbling about. Doesn’t your town have the local drunk? My town has several – and when I watch this film I get to see a day in their lives. Does that make me wanna give them some spare change? Well no, because I know that my money will probably be spent on booze instead of food, but it at least gives me a little understanding. Not pity, just understanding.

Well, that’s all I’m going to say about Barfly, as my obvious love and admiration for this film far exceeds my ability to describe it. If anything, everyone should view this movie at least once. While some might simply see it as stupid toilet humour – other will see it as a movie that takes on a life of it’s own. Like a great documentary, Barfly makes you into the proverbial fly on the wall – allowing you to see how the other half lives without having to go inside one of these smelly cess pools to find out.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio C- / Bonus C+

Barfly is presented in it’s original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 – it has also been enhanced for 16x9 TV’s.

As a whole the picture in Barfly is about what I expected to see. Since many of the films I have reviewed lately seem to come from about the same time – that being the mid 80’s. I pretty much knew what to expect right from the get go.

Overall the film provided a fairly solid viewing experience. While the opening credits, which featured a lot of wide angled, night time shots seemed to be marred with lots of speckles and occasional grain, the remainder of the film faired much better. While speckles did appear throughout much of the movie, they never truly dominated and never seemed to detract from the viewing experience.

Much of the film took place either at night, or in the darkened pits of the local bar. While this could have been a cause for concern, all of these scenes looked great. Contrast between the lights and darks were fantastic and did a wonderful job of setting the mood for the picture without becoming a distraction. The interior lighting of the bars, which contained a lot of reds, greens, yellows, and blues looked very good throughout and remained bright and colourful without becoming saturated. The picture was consistently crisp and clear - and colour accuracy was right on the money. All in all I found the usual amount of visual problems for a film of this age and no more. The picture quality wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly acceptable – it easily blew away the picture quality of the film when I viewed it on cable television – so I found little room for complaint.

Compared to the picture, I was far less impressed with the sound. It would have been nice if the film had Dolby surround or at least stereo, but alas, Barfly is present with the lowest of the low - that being Monaural.

Fortunately, since the film had very little in the way of action, and only subtle background music, mono sound wasn’t really all the bad. Barfly is more of a conversational piece than anything else, and in this department all voice came across nicely. All speech was clean and intelligible throughout – with no traces of edginess or that tinny vibe.

While some rear surround action would have added nicely to the ambiance of the film, especially when there was music playing in the bars or a fight taking place in the hallways of Henry and Wanda’s apartment – I never found myself missing it all that much. Certainly the sound was far from impressive, but it got the job done.

Considering the low retail cost, I wasn’t expecting Barfly to have much in the way of extras – if anything at all, but to my surprise the roster of special features is quite diverse. First and foremost we get an audio commentary from the film’s director – Barbet Schroeder.

For a one man show, Mr. Schroeder did an excellent job with his commentary. He offered a lot of great insider information on many aspects of the movie’s creation. He also discussed in great detail how this film, which was a labour of love for him almost never happened. He talks about how it took 7 years to finish the film from the original conception until it was completed.

He also talked about what it was like to work with Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway and many of the other colourful characters in the film. For him, one of the biggest stars of Barfly was the locations and the production teams attention to detail. Everything from the dingy bars to the slums these characters called their homes were all authentic. No sets were used, all the locations were carefully scouted out and the film was shot entirely on location on and about the streets of L.A. Also, he discusses the great amount of care that went into making the film’s characters looked as real as possible. Needless to say, once only needs to watch the film to see his success in these areas.

Aside from the obvious, Schroeder also talk about what it was like to work with screenwriter – Charles Bukowski. While I was unaware of this when viewing this movie in the past, Bukowski was both a famous author and poet – and Barfly is a largely autobiographical account of his life. It seems Mickey Rourke's character of Henry is molded after the man himself. Bukowski – like Henry was also a Barfly, spending morning, noon and night in similar places, all the while writing is stories and poetry within a drunken haze. It would seem the realism of the film is not without an explanation.

Overall I found Schroeder’s commentary to very interesting and at times fascinating. He certainly knew what the audience wanted to hear. He did a great job of keeping me entertained and was very active and vocal throughout a majority of the commentary. After all these years you can sense, just from listening to him the great amount of love he has for this movie and how proud he is of the final result. He clearly has fond memories of its production, and his enthusiasm for the making of the film translates nicely during the commentary.

Cast & Crew provides a brief biography of the other films that 2 of Barfly’s key member worked on. It covers Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway and Barbet Schroeder. We also get to learn a little more about Charles Bukowski. It’s pretty much the same as every other bio you have seen on every other DVD.

Next up we have “I drink, I gamble and I write…” The Making of Barfly. This segment runs for 12 minutes and 2 seconds. The segment is narrated by an unknown woman and shows a great deal of behind the scenes footage as well as some clips from the film. Overall this segment provides very little insider information as it is more like a featurette for the film, rather than a making of it.

This segment also provided comments from a few of the films big players. Namely Mickey Rourke, director - Barbet Schroeder and Screenwriter – Charles Bukowski. Unsurprisingly, Bukowski who is still a huge alcoholic spends much of the time drinking beer and going over how Schroeder talked him into working on the project. He also discusses his desires to finish the film as quickly as possible so he can get back to the solitude of his home, get drunk and sit in front of his typewriter.

When all is said and done, this section was interesting to see, but didn’t really provide any noteworthy information. To top it all off, the picture quality was very dark and absolutely atrocious. It really wasn’t anything special.

Next up we have a 2 minute theatrical trailer for the film. The trailer itself was of surprisingly good quality and did an excellent job of showing filmgoers what they could expect. Had I seen this trailer before seeing the film it certainly would have sparked my interest in going to see it.

Last, but certainly not least we have Excerpts from Barbet Schroeder’s – The Charles Bukowski Tapes.

During the audio commentary the director – Barbet Schroeder mentions these tapes and talks about how he filmed interviews with screenwriter/author/poet Charles Bukowski in order to get a better understanding of the man and the world he lived in. Schroeder went on to mention how he had filmed approximately 50 different segments while talking to Bukowski, and in this section we get to see 4 of them. These includes #2: Starving for Art, #3: This Bar in Philadelphia, #27: The New York Agent and #44: For Jane. These segments run between 3 minutes and 19 seconds to 4 minutes and 32 seconds. All told the four segments total 15 minutes and 51 segments worth of material.

One only needs to watch the film, then watch these 4 segments to see the similarities between the movie and actual events that took place in Bukowski’s life. During these tapes Bukowski talks about everything from his unwillingness to work a traditional 8-9 job in favour of pursuing his writing. He also goes on to talk about his discovery by an agent (much like in the film) and the unfortunate passing of a woman named Jane who he obviously loved very much. One can assume Jane is essentially the real life counterpart to Faye Dunaway's character of Wanda. However Wanda doesn’t die in the film as Barfly only covers about the first 3 days of their time together.

Since I was slow to learn that Barfly was basically the true life story of Bukowski, I found it exceedingly interesting to get to know a little bit about the man that Mickey Rourke portrayed so well on screen. It was also interesting to see how great of a job Rourke did of emulating this man’s behaviours. Everything from his subtle mannerisms to the drawn out and droll way in which the man speaks were all picked up perfectly by Rourke. Overall this section provides no information on the making of the film, but it was intriguing none the less. Much like Henry Chinaski in the film, Charles Bukowski was quite a character.

Admittedly I think Barfly is a great movie, but I found myself a little less impressed with the DVD. While the picture was acceptably good throughout most of the viewing, I was hoping for a little more in the sound department. While this audio track sounds reasonably clean and accurate, monaural is just plain dull any way that you slice it. The special features were also somewhat of a mixed bag. The best part was easily the directors audio commentary. Everything else included doesn’t really offer a whole lot other than to satisfy some curiosity about Charles Bukowski.

Mickey Rourke’s excellent portrayal of Charles Bukowski’s life, while I always believed it to be entirely a work of fiction, still manages to both shock and amuse me. Barfly is a fantastic movie with authentic locations and top notch acting all across the board. I think everyone owes it to themselves to at least give the movie a rental. A purchase of the disc itself is probably best reserved for fans of the film and perhaps fans of the work of Charles Bukowski. I for one fit more into the previous category than the latter.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5227 Stars Number of Votes: 44
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