The darkly comic Barfly slips every cliché of inebriation

The darkly comic Barfly slips every cliché of inebriation

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Last Stand, the first American film by gifted Korean director Kim Ji-woon (I Saw The Devil, A Tale Of Two Sisters), has us thinking about other films made by foreign directors working in America for the first time.

Barfly (1987)
From the very beginning of his career, Barbet Schroeder has been tough to pin down. His first two films, More and The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), were essentially collaborations with Pink Floyd, inspiring their third and seventh studio albums, respectively. Then he went back and forth between controversial dramas (most notably Maîtresse, a graphic portrait of sadomasochism) and idiosyncratic documentaries about Idi Amin and Koko the talking gorilla. So it’s not surprising that when he finally came to America, he commissioned an original screenplay from Charles Bukowski, arguably the most recalcitrant writer who’s ever lived. Legend has it that when Cannon Films pulled the plug on Barfly in pre-production, Schroeder brandished a battery-powered saw in Golan and/or Globus’ office and threatened to cut off one of his own fingers right there if they didn’t let him make the movie. Top that for dedication, James Cameron!

Thankfully, Cannon relented, because Barfly has few peers when it comes to pitch-black comedies of ill manners. Mickey Rourke, still young and beautiful at the time, made a startling transformation into Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski; his sly, shambling, perpetually quizzical performance transcends every cliché of inebriation. The slim storyline finds Rourke torn between two diametrically opposed women—a fellow lush (Faye Dunaway, almost vanity-free) and a wealthy publisher (Alice Krige)—but it’s really just a magnificently mordant portrait of pure freedom, specifically as that word pertains to not giving a flying fuck about anything at all except the present moment. Schroeder has stuck around Hollywood and made a number of worthwhile films since (Reversal Of Fortune won Jeremy Irons an Oscar), but he’s never recaptured Barfly’s palpable sense of genial indifference. For a movie about an unrepentant drunk, it’s amazingly funny. “Do you hate cops?” “No, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Availability: This one is tough to find, alas, as the Region 1 DVD is long out of print. If any video stores still exist in your area—the smaller the better—check with them. It’s also readily available from other countries, for those with a region-free DVD or Blu-ray player. Well worth a little extra effort.