More an extended interview than a documentary, Matteo Borgardt’s You Never Had It is a tight, 53-minute conversation filmed in 1981 between Italian interviewer Silvia Bizio and famously misanthropic writer and visual artist Charles Bukowski, along with a few of the poet’s intimates, including soon-to-be wife Linda Lee and cat Max. (Bukowski claimed to hate people, but he unabashedly adored his feline companions.) While fans already familiar with his life and output will get the most out of the film, even people new to Bukowski will be entertained, and even charmed, by the curmudgeonly, hard-drinking subject.
The documentary cuts between grainy footage shot on U-matic tapes at Bukowski’s San Pedro, Calif., home — where a rambling interview took place over six hours, countless cigarettes and at least seven bottles of wine — and scenes of Los Angeles street life in 2016, from diners and convenience stores to tent cities for the unhoused.
That more recent footage is filmed on a Super 8 camera in the same style as the ’81 interview, so it almost seems as if it had been recorded at the same time. At one point in the interview, Bukowski says that he wants his writing to “stay down in the streets and not get up in the stars too much” — to which the filmmakers comply, both with these shots (LA is where almost all of Bukowski’s work is set) and with their avoidance of narrativizing or philosophizing, instead letting Bukowski speak for himself.
There are two exceptions — at the very beginning, when present-day Bizio gives context for the interview, and the very end, when she reads a poem over a video taken of the writer’s grave and its famous inscription, “Don’t try.” That framing allows us a sweet glimpse of how Bizio herself saw Bukowski and their friendship, and the impact he had on her.
Bukowski is an entertaining subject, and we get the sense that he entertains himself most of all in his cheekily transgressive answers to Bizio’s questions about his writing practice, sex and his opinions of other writers. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t like them). A few unmissable — and unprintable — moments take place when he shows Bizio his writing desk and its adjoining deck, which overlooks the city and which he confesses he’s walked onto maybe four times since buying the house.
Bukowski says at one point that if writers are too accepted in their lifetimes, then they’re not doing a good job. His uncompromising work and stubborn refusal to fit any mold is a testament to this tenet, and by turning the lens on him, the film helps us see that we’re better off for it.
Available to rent starting Aug. 7 via fineartstheatre.com