Charles Bukowski has probably driven more dreamy-eyed notebook scribblers to bars than to bookstores, but it's not his fault. Over the years the myth has bloated up and nearly blotted out the man. In the popular imagination, Buk (rhymes with puke) was a hard-living, bloody-minded ex-postal worker who feared and hated women, soaked his liver in vats of booze and hammered out brutal poems about sex, whores, drinking and fights. It's not an inaccurate picture, just incomplete. Bukowski: Born into This, an exhaustive two-hour documentary directed by John Dullaghan, goes a long way toward filling in the gaps.

The main thing people forget about Bukowski is that he wrote. A lot. Like Hunter S. Thompson, Hank Bukowski inspires unhealthy living. But it's easy to do a shitload of drugs and dodge bats on the highway; it's easy to drink in a bar all day and say mean things to filthy broads. The hard part is crawling back to your scuzzy hovel all hungry and horny and alone and banging away at the keyboard until your nasty little life turns into poetry.

"The creative act is done on that goddamn machine, right there!" Bukowski bellows into the camera early in the film, fiercely prodding his typewriter. Unlike Barfly, which is a great film (despite significant Hollywood liberties) inspired by Bukowski's life, Born into This is pretty straightforward in manner and intent. Interviews with friends, family, girlfriends, wives, colleagues and editors are spliced together with old photos and footage of Bukowski in various interviews throughout his career; in several instances, different people tell the same story in different ways, with the various pieces edited together to form something between a good anecdote and the truth.

The film goes to great lengths to avoid glamorizing Bukowski's life, yet it is clear only 10 minutes into the movie that there's more to this guy than a rough-tongued, swaggering drunk who can type. Fans, of course, already know that, but Born into This is compelling enough to enthrall even those who've never read a poem in their lives.

It helps that Bukowski is hardly your typical poet. A fair portion of his fame came from writing a column called "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" for the underground paper Open City. We're not exactly talking T.S. Eliot here; we're talking about a real guy--possibly that guy, there at the bar. He is described as "today's Whitman" by John Martin, his early and constant champion from Black Sparrow Press. U2's Bono places him somewhere beyond the Beats in terms of cutting to the chase, "no time for metaphor."

Dullaghan doesn't flinch from showing Bukowski as an asshole now and then, abusing his wife and cussing out interviewers, but he's clearly more interested in the poet's vulnerable, humorous and sentimental sides. The film traces his entire grim history, from the childhood he describes as a "horror story, capital H," to his spirit-crushing years as a postal clerk, through hundreds of failures with women and editors alike, and eventually to acceptance and the dubious benefits of fame. More than one person interviewed for the film gets choked up--including Bukowski himself.

A highlight of the film is his story about the first time he got laid--at age 24 ("Well, I wasn't a pretty guy"), courtesy of "the 300-pound whore." The understated regret and empathy in his haggard old lion's face are surprisingly poignant. Where you might expect callousness and hard laughter, you find genuine sweetness. It's a pattern repeated throughout the film; the sense of Bukowski as a gentle soul hammered tough on the anvil of a shitty life is confirmed again and again in interviews with those who have known him, including Harry Dean Stanton, Sean Penn, and directors Barbet Schroeder and Taylor Hackford. "The gods have really put a good shield over me," he says bitterly at one point, and by the end of the film you start to understand why they had to.

Bukowski: Born into This

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9:30 pm Friday-Thursday, June 11-17. Additional shows 1:30 and 4 pm Saturday and Sunday.