Few authors who have delved into autobiographical material for their novels were able to do so with the honesty of Charles Bukowski. He is largely considered one of the greatest American poets and authors. What made his work so appealing to the masses is he never flinched from depicting the grittier side of life, even if it meant portraying himself as a barely employable drunk. This also makes transferring his work from the page to the screen a challenge for all involved. Bukowski was a stream of consciousness writer, a man who wrote the way he lived, in the moment. Films usually want to have a directional plot line. There has to be somewhere for the characters to go as the story progresses. Bukowski wrote the way he lived much of his life, day to day; adrift in a world controlled by others.
According to the dictionary a factotum is a person who takes on numerous jobs. He is the perennial assistant, never the one in charge. Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is such a man. He considers himself to be ostensibly a writer and does try to commit words to the page whenever he happens to be sober enough to focus. The rest of his time he would much rather drink the day away. Of course, in order to do that money is required and this necessitates Hank taking on one menial job after another. Hank is not happy or even satisfied with the whole concept of being a wage slave. He sees no point in forcing yourself awake, taking a long commute and working to make someone else money. His combination of a lack of interest in his job and his predilection for alcohol keeps Hank moving from one dead end job to another. He goes from the physical demands of working a jack hammer to break up blocks of ice to the blinding monotony of sorting pickles. His alcohol use is to anesthetize himself to the bleakness of the world around him. He knows that it is destroying him but feels that this is after all a matter of personal choice. He is so low that he considers a job as a bookie for his friend Manny (Fisher Stevens) a big break. Unfortunately, the pair couldn’t spot a winner in a two horse race.
In his off hours Hank inhabits one low life dive after another. He moves from bar to bar, drinking himself into a nightly stupor. While drinking he watches his fellow bottom feeders, seeing them not only as a mirror to himself but a reflection of mankind. Fellow barfly, Laura (Marisa Tomei) is an alcoholic who offers Hank some relief from the tedium of his endless days. Under better circumstances the love of Hank’s life would be the equally alcoholic Jan (Lili Taylor). They ostensibly share a place to live, rather a dive to sleep their last bender off. She makes him pancakes for dinner and provides some measure of company during their drinking sprees. In many ways Jan is the female counterpart for Hank, yet another mirror into his own psyche. Sex is more a physical imperative than an emotional release for the two. They go through the motions, even enjoy each other but under it all is even more loneliness. She finally has enough of Hank acting like a big shot when his bookie gig pays off in a small way. Hank cannot cope with any form of success and soon gives up his illegal ways to return to writing.
At the heart of this otherwise aimless life is Hank’s writing. He puts his words on paper with almost brutal force, nearly driving the pencil through the page. This is the only aspect of his life that he feels any commitment towards. He sends endless pages of prose and stories to Black Sparrow Press, the only part of the literary community that Hank has even a modicum of respect for. In return he receives one rejection letter after another. He doesn’t care if he is considered a good or bad writer. All that matters to Hank is that he releases what is inside with his writing. This is one touchstone to humanity.
Perhaps it takes a non-American to direct a film like this. To have an outsider’s eye to see what is really at the heart of the characters. Scandinavian director Bent Hamer gives the right balance of existential feel and comedy to this work. He moves the location from the darker side of Los Angeles to an unnamed industrial American city, actually Minneapolis. It had to be difficult to find humor in the smoky, alcohol drenched sets here but Hamer does so with style. In many ways Factotum is the best film rendition of Bukowski’s work. It comes across better than Barfly which is somewhat surprising considering Bukowski wrote the screenplay for that film. This film captures the essence of Bukowski’s work. He didn’t write poetry or stories about the appreciation of the best the world had to offer. He wrote about how he coped with the mundane depression inherent in the everyday. Bukowski may have used alcohol to numb the sensations but he employed humor as released in his work to get through his life.
What keeps this film from becoming depressing is the vitality and talent of the cast. When you think about the great American actors Matt Dillon may not come immediately to mind. This is a shame since over the years he has given one solid performance after another. He can do comedy such as he did in ‘There’s Something About Mary’ or drama as in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ with equal ability. Here he doesn’t seem to take his role overly seriously. That is the perfect approach for an actor portraying the alter ego of Bukowski. He drifts through the scenes but still is able to pull the audience into the film. Dillon can make us care about a character that we would cross the street to avoid in real life. Lili Taylor nails her part as Jan. She plays so well off of Dillion’s performance that it was amazing to watch them in scenes together. Marisa Tomei is almost unrecognizable here. She manages to make a lot out of her part, invoking sympathy with the audience. On a very sad note this was the last film by independent actress Adrienne Shelly. Her talent and life was recently cut short here in New York City. I have been a fan of her work since Trust and her talent will be missed.
Once again Genius Pictures and the Independent Film Channel bring the public a film that most may not have known existed but is so worth having. I never know what to expect when I get one of their films to review but I have to say I am never disappointed. For those that do not have a local art house cinema nearby IFC offers a means to discover little treasures such as this film. The 1.85:1 anamorphic video is very well done. It captures the claustrophobic feel of the smoky bars. The color balance is excellent as is the contrast. The Dolby 5.1 audio is a bit of over kill. The sub woofer is mostly silent but the rear speakers give a natural ambience. There is an interesting making of featurette that shows just how committed the cast and crew where to bringing Bukowski’s work to life. Rounding things off are eight deleted scenes that help show some of the decisions made for the final cut. This is a rear find in a film. It has an honest, human humor that will draw you in.