The Charles Bukowski Tapes are a collection of short-interviews with the American writer/poet Charles Bukowski, filmed and assembled by Barbet Schroeder and first published in 1987 in the USA. Today, the video documentary is considered a cult classic.
The Charles Bukowski Tapes are an altogether more than four hours long collection of 52 short-interviews with the American cult author Charles Bukowski, sorted by topic and each between one and ten minutes long. Director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly) interviews Bukowski about such themes as alcohol, violence, and women, and Bukowski answers willingly, losing himself in sometimes minute-long monologues. Amongst other things, Bukowski leads the small camera team through his parents’ house and his former neighbourhood, but the largest part of the interviews takes place in Bukowski’s flat or backyard. The documentary includes a scene in which Bukowski reacts violently toward his wife Linda Lee.
The documentary was assembled from about 64 hours of film footage, which occurred during the three-year lead time for Schroeder’s motion picture Barfly, for which Bukowski wrote the autobiographical script.
From 1980 to 1986, I was desperately trying to find the financing for BARFLY. We were also working for a couple of hours once a week on a new jazzed-up, souped-up version of the script before going into a night of drinking and talking at his home. Many different subjects were addressed but Hank always made sure everyone who happened to end up with us got their turn to talk even if they were to be violently contradicted later on. I was always waiting for the moment when Hank would go into one of his short monologues. They were as beautiful, powerful and funny as his writing, and always related directly to personal experience.
I considered myself blessed to be there and wished I could share the experience, without disrupting it, with anyone who would enjoy it as much as I did. The frustration of being unable to make a movie I was completely ready to make, led me to keep a record of these evenings using one inch video, which was the best support at the time to film non stop and to forget about the camera was even there. I asked as few questions as possible, always letting the flow of words end naturally. It was exhausting for Hank. As he did in his poetry readings he felt he had to be truthful and give a performance.
It was also important to him to keep alive his notion that creation could not and should not be taken all that seriously, which was a true natural wisdom I greatly admired .For example, later, when we were shooting I had told him I was wishing he could come on the set of BARFLY as often as possible since I considered I had put myself at the service of his text. I was really impressed, though, when he told me he did not want to come more than once a week because the movie could only evolve into something lasting if it blossomed independently of him. The actor, for example, right or wrong, had to find in himself his own creation rather than being tempted to rely on imitation.
Hank was lucid on his talent and told me a few times that BARFLY would be my most enduring movie (his other favourites were “Reversal of Fortune” and ”General Idi Amin Dada”). Seeing the result of the 4 hour edit of “The Bukowski Tapes” he was impressed by his own verbal vitality. He did not remember the shooting.
“This is powerful!” he said unboastfully – taking it simply as something which came from outside of him, over which he had no control. His acceptance of this was part of his desire to always force himself to speak the truth of whatever he was feeling. Also he had not remembered what was on those tapes.
Drinking helped him overcome his shyness. The tiny crew was, of course, drinking and laughing with him. Those who were less drunk would take turns at the camera. Over a couple of months we shot for five or six evenings, starting with beer and ending with red wine. I can still identify the differences in his speech patterns, depending on what he was drinking, even when the glasses are not visible on screen. But the most extraordinary thing that I have ever witnessed with a drinker is that he became more brilliant, his words acquiring more depth, as we advanced into the drunken night. I never saw him incoherent no matter what he drank or in what amount.
I filmed all this, deliberately refusing to cover myself with shots made for editing. I knew it was the man and his words I wanted to communicate, nothing else.
When I started the editing alone at night with loaned primitive equipment, I began by selecting my favourites passages. Rapidly I realized that the footage was working like a succession of monologues. This was an unforgettable moment of solitary exaltation. I was even playing with the idea of having discovered a new form: the filmed equivalent of a collection of aphorisms. At the time the DVD did not exist but it was what was missing from this project– the viewer’s ability to have the same freedom as a reader does to effortlessly, even randomly, navigate from chapter to chapter.