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According to such friends and admirers as Bono, Sean Penn, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles “Hank” Bukowski was a great American writer, honest and original. You needn’t buy it, however, to appreciate Bukowski: Born Into This, John Dullaghan’s account of the cranky U.S. Postal Service worker who became an indie-press best seller. This is an exemplary cinéma vérité documentary, made—impressively—by a first-time filmmaker who started simply by identifying with Bukowski’s work-is-hell memoir, Post Office. With the help of editor Victor Livingston, who also cut Crumb, Dullaghan interlaced archival footage of the writer (who died in 1994) with interviews of friends, admirers, co-workers, and ex-lovers. The film is deftly structured, so that the blustering alcoholic showcased in the opening scene is eventually revealed to be more nuanced, more coherent, and perhaps even more likable. Dullaghan dispenses the hard facts of Bukowski’s life gradually, and they’ll probably come as a surprise to viewers who haven’t immersed themselves in the poet and novelist’s work. (Let’s just say that he had reason to be an Angry Old Man.) Like other elder statesmen of the counterculture, Bukowski didn’t quite get his younger fans. He wrote for two underground newspapers, Open City and the L.A. Free Press, but preferred beer, horse-racing, and classical music to the new pastimes of the ’60s kids. (Pacing a montage of alternative-press images, Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” sounds most un-Bukowskian.) Ultimately, of course, Bukowski became fashionable and domesticated: hailed from the stage by U2, impersonated by Mickey Rourke in Barfly—which everyone agrees didn’t get it—and relocated to bucolic San Pedro by his wife, Linda Lee Bukowski, whom some call “the second Linda.” The final piece of writing in the film is a sentimental admission of the sentimentality that skeptics may find underlying most of Bukowski’s work. Even nonadmirers should find this documentary compelling, however, and any author who was dedicated to “the de-Disneyification of America” deserves an art-house tribute.

—Mark Jenkins