Bloody, senseless fights between main character Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) and Eddie, a macho bartender, (Frank Stallone) frame the film Barfly, Charles Bukowski’s powerful and unrelenting journey into the Los Angeles bar scene. However, the setting for the film, the Golden Horn, is no ordinary bar and its drunken adversaries are engaged in no ordinary brawl.
Written by Charles Bukowski based on his own life experiences and directed by Barbet Schroeder in 1987, Barfly dramatizes the eternal struggle between the forces of chaos and violence as they wage a war against the constraining forces of social decorum, bourgeois conformity, and repression. However bloodied, drunk and disheveled Henry becomes, he is also a modern version of the Greek god Dionysus who championed the creative literary arts in the classical world.
Bukowski’s script suggests that the contemporary sordid world of the Golden Horn, not middle-class order and respectability as a prerequisite to the creative life. In fact, Bukowski dramatizes the tension between the bourgeois and the underworld as a battle between two women for possession of Henry’s soul. Although Wanda (Faye Dunaway) initially seems to have the upper hand, Henry is temporarily seduced by the beautiful, all-white clad Tully (Alice Krige) the owner of the Contemporary Review of Art and Literature who enters the Golden Horn bar in order to give him a $500 royalty check.
Tully, however, has greater designs on Henry than just the publication of his work. Desiring to reform the dissolute Henry, she takes him to her gated apartment and offers him a permanent place to live and work. “You can really write.” Tully tells Henry. “Why do you live like a bum?” Yet despite her praise, she infantilizes Henry by asking him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She describes her all beige, upper-class world as artistically empowering, tempting him with a guesthouse where he “could write in peace.” Henry rejects Tully’s world as a “cage with golden bars” and retorts, “No one who could write a damn could write in peace.” Henry understands that he “belongs on the streets. I don’t feel right here. I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Although Wanda is initially described by the bartender as “crazy,” hers is a kind of chaos most valued by Henry as the principle of disorder and eventual rebirth. Later, Wanda calls Henry “the damndest barfly I’ve ever seen . . . some weird blueblood, like royalty.” But Wanda values Henry as he is, praising his dark, nonrational vision as authentic knowledge: “We are all in some kind of hell,” she confesses. “And the madhouses are the only places where they know they are in hell.”
And it is for this reason that Henry and Wanda make such a good pair, providing each other with the sustenance necessary for a meaningful life, despite the bloody bar brawls, filthy, cheap apartments and surrounding degradation and disorder. In fact, the Golden Horn bar, their meeting place, is the ideal site for such a union since it symbolizes the cornucopia, the classical Greek symbol of protection and spiritual abundance, a site of fertility associated with the goat’s horn that fed the baby Zeus. In Greek mythology, whoever possesses the horn has all the necessary nourishment required for survival since the goat’s golden horn is eternally abundant.
And it is for this reason that Henry returns to the Golden Horn bar with Wanda in the final scene, spoiling for another pointless fight with Eddie and spending the last proceeds of Tully’s $500 check for one last orgiastic celebration. He is, after all, the Dionysian god of wine himself, the purveyor of sacred, ritual madness who helps people achieve an ecstatic state of sacred frenzy.
Henry liberates his followers from societal restraints as both an artist and a fellow drunk. He is opposed to the rational order of Tully and her bourgeois world and always sides with the wild and the underworld rather than the civilized restraints of the domesticated and the safe. And for this journey, he needs a partner in disorder – Wanda – who threatens to dismember Tully in a bar fight as the ancient Maenads who worshipped Dionysus did to adversaries in ancient Greece.
In one particularly important scene, Henry has a conversation with Jim, another bartender (J.C. Quinn) about the nature of life. Henry says, “This is a world where everyone needs to be something, do something . . . sometimes I get tired of thinking of all the things I don’t want to do, of things I don’t want to be, or places I don’t want to go.” Jim suggests that Henry choose not to think: “The whole trick is not to think about it.”
Bukowski’s screenplay and its gritty, realistic and often repugnant characters (Bukowski even does a cameo role as an old, dissipated drunk) force us “to think about it” and not to give in to the pressures of conformity and complaisance that would anesthetize us and make us comfortably numb. Henry, the god of wine, suggests that we all drink deeply, “Anyone can be a non-drunk” he advises. “It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.”
Barfly requires us to look at the unfettered truth of life, quite apart from its bourgeois comforts and temptations. It is a thoughtful, deeply moving film that asks its audience to choose Wanda over Tully if we are going to live a freely chosen, unencumbered and truthful life.