Bent Hamer's Charles Bukowski's Factotum
In Bent Hamer’s Factotum, Henry Chinaski plods through life, writing, drinking and screwing. If this were the whole of the story, I could end this review right now. But watching Chinaski’s life through the gloom of John Christian Rosenlund’s wide-open cinematography leaves me with a combination of there-but-for-fortune pity and my continued fascination with the romantic image of the drunken writer.
Adapted from Charles Bukowski’s 1975 second novel, the story is told with a European sensibility, an “American independent” style of cinematography, and a fabulous, mood-reverberating musical score. Smoky textures and grungy urban decay lend to the aforementioned pity. Hamer takes a deadpan approach to his material, allowing us to look deep into the characters’ acceptance of their self-destructive lives. One is grateful for Kristin Asbjornsen's idiosyncratic soundtrack, which introduces movement to the story’s deliberate pace, and adds its own one-two punch of hunger and boredom.
Matt Dillon brings a scoundrel-as-hero resonance to this Bukowski alter ego. Over the years, Dillon has perfected himself as a cartoon character of an actor, often over the top, but engaging; he is successful as Chinaski, drawing Bukowski’s character with well paced expressions and gestures, a combination of introspection and stupor. Constantly drinking, he stumbles through a variety of low-paying, menial jobs from which he always gets fired. The dictionary definition of a factotum is “a person hired to do all sorts of work.” The movie’s main title paraphrases that definition with the subscript: “n. A man who never had a job he liked; and never kept a job he had.”
Chinaski treats his girlfriend and parents with sarcasm and cruelty, his employers with irreverence, and everyone else with comic indifference. He has no friends, with the exception of a race-track buddy, played by Fisher Stevens, whom he meets while working in a bicycle supply warehouse. Chinaski’s character livens up at the track. He bets well and wins enough money to buy a tailored suit and good cigars. But the next reversal of fortune comes quickly when this newfound grandiosity gets him fired from that job.
Lili Taylor plays momentary love interest, Jan, who is an unambitious, bruised character in search of security. She gives a crusty, inebriated performance as a woman to whom only a drunk would make love. Her warm smile and the inherent sweetness of her soft eyes belie her cynical, slutty persona.
Their relationship goes the distance from seedy barroom pickup to his punching her in the mouth. There are some tender, if not absurd moments: in their rundown kitchen Chinaski affectionately hugs Jan who, wearing only panties and bra, cooks pancakes for dinner. When the relationship finally runs out of steam, she gives him a tender kiss, a wrapped gift and watches him walk away before she enters the house of a wealthy real estate agent of whom she says, “I hate it when he fucks me.”
The wonderful Marisa Tomei plays Laura, another easy pickup from an urban bar who exemplifies the sort of romance Chinaski craves—a quick pickup and she pays for dinner. Tomei transforms herself as an actress; with understated technique she plays a drunken loser who keeps strange relations with an older man and his harem. It’s an ugly face of love that Chinaski follows for the booze.
There is no pretense of glamor in this downtown Minneapolis setting. Like following a primal urge, Henry goes from bar to bar, woman to woman, writing along the way and exposing the tedium of the average wage earner. There are no bold statements other than his rant to the Bicycle warehouse employer.
I’ve given you my time, which is all I have to give... I’ve given you my time, so you can live in your big house. If anyone’s lost anything on this deal, this arrangement, I’ve been the loser.
Henry Chinaski would just as soon make money at the horse track or by sponging off his parents, while using his time to write story after story on his (or somebody else’s) kitchen table. Other than copious drinks and raucous sex, being a writer is the only acceptance for which Henry Chinaski longs. Such recognition reveals itself with casual irony at the end of this satisfying motion picture.
Scattered throughout the movie, Dillon’s off-screen recitation of Bukowski’s words in concert with Asbjornsen’s score contributes a gritty tonal effect. The power of this movie leaves me slightly hung over from continual swigs of whiskey and cheap wine, wondering if I’ve contracted the crabs, and hoping to see more works of Henry Charles Bukowski brought to the screen.
(Factotum. An IFC Films release. Director: Bent Hamer. Screenplay: Bent Hamer and Jim Stark, based on the 1975 novel by Charles Bukowski. Producers: Bent Hamer and Jim Stark. Director of Photography: John Christian Rosenlund. Editor: Pal Gengenbach. Original music by Kristin Asbjornsen. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated “R” for language and sexual content. In limited release during September 2006. DVD is currently available in Europe as a Region 2 DVD, scheduled for U.S. release in December 2006.)