Sunday, June 22, 2008


Factotum is a film directed by Bent Hamer, adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles Bukowski. The film is principally a Norwegian production, although with an American cast. It was released in Norway in 2005 and distributed in the U.S. by IFC Films in 2006. It was released on DVD in the U.S. on 26 December 2006.

Bukowski's book, also titled Factotum, was published in 1975. It centers on the character of Henry Chinaski, who is widely known to be Bukowski’s alter ego.

In the film, Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is working toward becoming a writer, and follows his own advice that "If you're going to try, go all the way." The film follows Chinaski's various jobs and relationships with women. The only things consistent in Chinaski's life (shown in repeated scenes throughout the film) seem to be his drinking and his writing. Chinaski has a more lasting relationship with one woman, Jan, (Lili Taylor), who is also a broke alcoholic. They both find, however, that they do not need one another, and part ways. Chinaski continues writing, though he gets no tangible rewards.

The screenplay, by Hamer and Jim Stark, is based on the book of the same title, the 1975 sort-of autobiography by Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles poet often included with the Beats, some say wrongly. His alter ego, Henry (Hank) Chinaski, last appeared on the screen in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987), with Mickey Rourke in the title role. Before that, it was a much grittier movie, Marco Ferreri's Storie di ordinaria follia (1981), that put Ben Gazzara in a gutsy performance as a Bukowski stand-in probably the closest to the real thing.

Bukowski himself, who died in 1994, adapted his own book for Barfly and even had a cameo appearance sitting at the bar. My overwhelming feeling while watching Factotum was that the story of Bukowski's life comes off this time as hagiography. I am not a big fan of Bukowski, a man whose prolific production is remarkable, but I often have the feeling when reading his work that he could have used a merciless editor. People who love him appreciate that rawness, but I prefer my literature a little more filtered. Bukowski's literary voice, that rambling, foul-mouthed vomit of words, is mostly edited out of Factotum. We hear one poem in voiceover ("A poem is a city"), and it is read in a truncated form. Matt Dillon's calm, slow-moving Chinaski loses a series of meaningless jobs, drinks and smokes but not to grotesque excess, and hooks up with a couple different women. Waking up on a bench one morning seems to mark his low point. It is an achievement to have made a life like Bukowski's seem this dull and colorless. The city extolled in that voiceover poem as "filled with streets and sewers / filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen, / filled with banality and booze" is not even Bukowski's Los Angeles: the film was shot in Minneapolis, as eerily empty of people as a de Chirico painting.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the life dissected here, that the glamor of literary poverty is a fallacy. Chinaski spends a lot of time sitting at the bar, telling lies to prospective employers and girlfriends, scribbling short stories on a legal pad, and dropping envelopes in mailboxes. This may be a realistic description of much of Bukowsi's life, but it does not make for a particularly gripping cinematic experience. Hamer does capture the desperation of a couple, Jan and Chinaski, who are perfectly matched for one another but grow to loathe one another's company. The couple who drinks together, sleeps together, and even throws up together after a bad binge (in the movie's funniest scene) cannot always live together.

In spite of the screenplay's weaknesses, Hamer draws strong performances from his cast. Matt Dillon, husky and red-faced, plays the role for all the intensity and humor he can get. Lili Taylor, who is still at the top of every independent film director's speed dial, is courageous and infuriating as Jan, Bukowski's drunken, slutty muse. Far more interesting but on the screen for much less time is Marisa Tomei -- whose mainstream career tanked around the time she turned 40 -- as the other woman, Laura. Tomei, all legs, mascara-heavy eyes, and drunken semi-oblivion, gave work of the strength she showed last in Unhook the Stars. Continuing our tour of our favorite independent film actresses, there is a too-brief appearance from Adrienne Shelly, discovered in the 1990s by Hal Hartley in two of his best early films, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth. I guess Parker Posey just didn't return Bent Hamer's calls. Factotum is worth watching for these performances, but it may not be for everyone.

Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor star in Bent Hamer's understated adaptation of the second novel by legendary writer, drinker, shirker and poet, Charles Bukowski
"When you drank the world was still out there," wrote Charles Bukowski in his 1975 novel 'Factotum', "but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat."

With bloody-minded tenacity, the bullet-proof poet carved out a place for himself in the pantheon of American letters somewhere between the Beats and that other chronicler of sozzled sorrow, Raymond Carver. Brutal yet beautiful, raw yet romantic, Bukowski described the view from the bar, the bench and the gutter while resisting the twin temptations that afflict most writers with a thirst, sentiment and self-pity.

Between them, Factotum's director Bent Hamer and star Matt Dillon take Bukowski's squalid celebrations of failure and turn them into a deadpan film about defeat, defiance and dedicated drinking that exceeds the more lively but less sensitive Bukowski biopic Barfly, and avoids the macho posturing - to which Bukowski's writing is undeniably prone - of the Spanish film Tales Of Ordinary Madness. For Dillon, it's a performance equal to Drugstore Cowboy or Beautiful Girls. For Hamer, it's both a logical progression and a big leap on from his literal treatment of the kitchen sink drama, Kitchen Stories.

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