A Re-Introduction to the Main Character
of Barbet Schroeder's Film Barfly
Sandra Stahlman, October 1989
"Some people never go crazy. What truly terrible lives they must live."
Barbet Schroeder's 1987 film Barfly allows us to experience three days of the life of a drunk-by-choice, Henry Chinaski, portrayed by Mickey Rourke. "Anybody can be a non-drunk; it takes something special to be a drunk. It takes endurance." As the film opens, we meet Henry sparring with bartender, Eddie, in the alley behind The Golden Horn bar ("A Friendly Place ") . It seems as though he is a lunatic. But, as the film progresses we learn more about Henry. We see that he is a brilliant writer. And a man whose idea of living is simply experiencing life.
Not wanting to be stagnated by the norms of our society, Henry chooses to be a bum; living day by day, moment by moment, for the experience itself. Just as the viewer begins to recognize Henry as sane in a very insane world - seeing him not as crazy, but rather honest, genuine, reacting appropriately to the environment he lives in - director Schroeder, employing precision camera work, gives the viewer a shocking and amusing reminder of how Henry would appear to someone not familiar with him and his lifestyle. This fine scene, to be described, reminds us how completely insane we originally perceived Henry to be upon introduction of his character - stumbling around drunk behind the Golden Horn, blood dripping from his face.
Henry meets and moves in with Wanda Wilcox. She is also a drunk. "Listen, I drink. And when I drink, I move in the wrong direction..." She makes the mistake of sleeping with Eddie, the bartender with whom Henry is at a constant state of war. "Why did it have to be Eddie? He symbolizes everything that disgusts me. Obviousness. Unoriginal macho energy. Ladies Man.." Henry and Wanda argue, until Wanda bashes Henry over the head several times with her purse and Henry passes out. After regaining consciousness, Henry drenches his head wounds in alcohol. Blood running down his face and clothes he recites: "Nothing but the dripping sink. Empty bottle. Euphoria. Youth fenced in, stabbed and shaved. Taut words propped up to die." We are seeing Henry for what he really is. Yes, he's a drunk, and perhaps a genius... When suddenly the camera cuts to a shot of a man (a private detective) knocking on his door. The camera is placed head high, slightly behind and to the left of the detective. This position creates the illusion that the viewer is standing right there in the hallway (in off-screen space) with the detective, waiting along with him to meet Henry for the first time.
The viewer is intensely drawn into the action by the close proximity of the camera to the detective (so close that only half his head and a small portion of his left shoulder are visible). It is as if we were standing in off-screen space, waiting along with the detective. The detective sighs and shifts his weight around a little, expressing his impatience and also that which the viewer should now be experiencing. Henry throws open the door. His hair and shirt are soaked with blood. The camera zooms in ever so slightly, the detective's shoulders no longer visible - making the viewer feel even more intimately involved. "Are you Henry Chinaski ?"--the detective's words "re-introducing" us to the main character. Henry composes himself, averts his eyes, takes a slow, silent determined step forward. A diagonal door frame directly above his head focuses our eyes on Henry's movement inward, as he crosses the vertical line of the doorway that previously had been "separating" him from us. Curiosity builds - what profound words of wisdom will Henry share about the eternal question, 'Who Are You?' ? Racy, classical background music, beginning just before this shot and becoming markedly louder when Henry opens the door, adds to the tension. Henry looks up, the light from inside the room shining around his head. Total attention is directed upon him and what his answer will be. Accompanied by a whirlwind of violin music, Henry throws his head back defiantly, a crazed grin on his face and declares maniacally "No, I'm Leon Spinks!" And we the viewers are reminded of how much Henry first seemed to be a lunatic when we, like the detective now, met him for the first time.
We first meet Henry, dripping in blood, drunk and crazy. We want to know who he is and what he is about.
"Are you Henry Chinaski?" As the film progresses we learn that Henry does not want to answer such a question, he does not want to classify himself by society's standards. "This is a world where everybody's got to do something. You know, somebody laid down this rule that everybody's got to do something, they got to be something. You know, a dentist, pilot, janitor, a preacher - all that. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things I don't want to do, things that I don't want to be..." He is offended by this constant questioning of his identity. When asked, he responds cryptically, sarcastically - denying us a simple answer. "No, I'm Leon Spinks!" He forces others to look deeper and truly find out who he is, how he thinks, and why he lives the way he does. "You look in bad shape should I call a doctor?" asks the detective; as the shot cuts to its reverse shot, we are placed in Henry's position - to answer the question for ourselves. Henry pauses, replies "No, I'm quite allright!" and slams the door;
The viewer, after experiencing a few days with Henry can feel confident that Henry is not destitute, crazy, needing help, but happy, living the lifestyle that he chooses for himself.
"And as my hands drop the last desperate pen, in some cheap room, they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape."
(Quotes from the movie Barfly; based upon the short story by Charles Bukowski)
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