Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mickey Rourke in BARFLY

I once washed dishes at Caddyshack's Bar and Grill in Manotick, Ontario. The morning and evening shift. Nothing much happened in the morning. Scraping leftover burnt toast off of the plates under hot running water, mostly. In the evenings, close to midnight, sometimes shit went down. One night, in the middle of my ten-minute break, while standing at the bar outside of the heat of the kitchen, watching hockey highlights on SportsDesk, I saw some drunk dude take his fist to the left ear of a Yuppie-looking type who had mouthed off to him just a few seconds before. Dark red blood just sort of spurted out of that ear like a sprinkler coming to life. The other regulars seated on stools at the bar looked up for a second or two, then turned back to the tube.

I don't drink, or hang out in bars much, but Mickey Rourke in BARFLY seemed to nail it for me. Written by Charles Bukowski, that derelict poet of the bottle, and directed by Barbet Schroeder, the movie sticks a charismatic drunk at the centre, then lets us watch him as he revels in his self-imposed trade. Finding an alcolohic friend in Faye Dunaway, the two of them drink, fight, sleep together, argue. Languidly look for jobs. The film doesn't romaticize Rourke's character; he does that all for himself. A not-so-subtle self-portrait of screenwriter Bukowski, we get an inflated idea of what alcohol can do for one's life. When given a choice between a shot at literary stardom and an upper-class fuck, Rouke does what's expected -- he goes back to the bottle, and let's have one more round for the road.

Soon after meeting him, Dunaway tells Rouke that he has the oddest of demeanours, as if he thinks that he's truly 'bluebood'. I got that vibe, too. His character seems to be performing for himself and the world throughout the course of the film; he delivers almost every line in the same upward swing. He is, for the most part, an amiable drunk, and he likes where he is. Rourke doesn't celebrate the life of an alcoholic; he just portrays its logic. Everything else is subordinate to the next shot of rum. Given this fact, let's just enjoy the mild buzz.

I'd somehow or other never seen this film until now, and I'm thinking that this might contain one of the two or three best performances in American cinema of the Eighties. Rourke is one of those actors, like James Caan or Charles Bronson, who doesn't even seem like he should be an actor at all, which is why he's so good. Simultaneously centred and off-base. You truly believe that this guy (both Mickey Rourke and his character) has come from somewhere else, a scary joint far, far away. That he's had a real life of some kind, not solely some cocked-up backstory. This character is a man who has somehow inflated himself even as he continues his descent. He has his own codified sense of nobility and logic. He wanders through life hungover or drunk, but he nevertheless exults in his presence as the King Of His World. I can't imagine another actor pulling this role off, or even giving it a real shot. The movie is a little bit hammy at times, and bluntly obvious at others, but Rourke is so grandiose in his full-of-shitness that he charms you to watch, just like all good drunks tend to do.

By the time the end-credits roll, he's pretty much in the same place that he began, doing the same stupid shit, cheered on and high-fived by the usual sad saps at the bar, but the movie almost made me feel that this was in fact a good end. 'Let him do his own thing', was what I was thinking, and it's a credit to Rourke that his talented scuzz of a character actually comes across as his own kind of hero, with us as his enablers. Human sleaze, if not uplifted, at least piggy-backed, with the audience the one on their knees, carrying all that dumb weight. What a performance!

We all know how this kind of life will turn out, (as do those smack-dab in the middle of it), but the film also reminds us that there's not all that much you can do, so pay your respects while you can. People are going to strike blows to the ear, and blood will gush out. They'll clean themselves up and be right back tomorrow. Until they aren't. In the meantime, let them put on their show, while we sit back and watch and nurse our own gaping wounds. BARFLY kind of gets that the human spectacle  might be sad and hilarious, horrific and humane, but at least at the bar there are fellow sadsacks around to see and be seen. Sometimes an audience is enough.

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