dir: Bent Hamer
[img_assist|nid=920|title=When will people learn: being a drunk doesn't make you Bukowski. Hating women and occasionally writing turns you into Bukowski|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=316|height=463]
Getting to watch a flick based on a Charles Bukowski novel appeals to a pretty narrow crowd of people. Anyone familiar with his work and his life knows that the story is going to follow a narrow path: it’ll deal with drinking, women and writing, and little else. Maybe a few fights. Bit of throwing up and examples of scuzzy living, some poetry, and that’s it.

But they’re already sold on the idea anyway. The difficulty is in selling it to anyone else.

This movie, produced by a Norwegian director and film crew, is an adaptation of the Bukowski novel Factotum. Factotum (the book) is about an alcoholic based on Bukowksi who drinks constantly, works shitty jobs, and writes. He also takes up with some women, lives like a bum, and writes some more.

Factotum (the movie) stars Matt Dillon as Hank Chinaski, who drinks constantly, works (and gets fired from) shitty jobs, writes, takes up with women, lives like an unrepentant bum, and writes some more. It is virtually plot-free, like an episode of a reality television show devoted to the Biggest Loser that has nothing to do with weight.

‘Factotum’ refers to a person who does a disparate range of jobs. Like a dogsbody, Girl Friday, goffer, a general assistant. In this context, it is meant to refer to a perpetually-drunk alcoholic who goes through an absurd amount of jobs because he is too much of a degenerate to stay in the job more than a few days.

In some cases, he doesn’t even last hours. You can take that to mean that he’s lazy, selfish, undependable, or just pathetic. But I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to take away from this.

When we see a hung over Chinaski, played with the right degree of physicality by Dillon, stumble out of bed to throw up, and then start drinking a beer to start the day, we’re not meant to be applauding him either. Factotum represents the alcoholic’s life as something utterly lacking in charm or cool. There’s not a single scene in this flick that represents alcoholism as being either glamorous or transgressive.

It’s just mundane. Seedy, but commonplace. Our protagonist doesn’t embark on adventures or crazy escapades fuelled by the demon drink. The women he takes up with are hardly femme fatales or seductive sirens. They are just as bad as him, if not worse.

The story meanders through the different stages of Chinaski’s employment and personal life, with scenes of writing as punctuation. Only two things matter to Chinaski: drinking and writing. Everything else is immaterial, and women are more a convenience than a necessity. They are necessary for money, for a place to stay, and maybe sex. The jobs matter for only as long as he can work them in order to get pocket money to spend on more booze and to have the time to write.
It’s hard to say whether the repetition of scenes of him getting and losing jobs is meant to be comical. Several of them are amusing, but the sheer quantity emphasises only one point: that he doesn’t comprehend authority, and that he just doesn’t care.

He loses most jobs simply because he walks away from them, preferring to drink. Mostly it’s just negligence, because the details and relevant aspects simply elude him. None are lost directly to drinking on the job.

It’s important to emphasise it, because the approach taken by the flick is that a person like that, a high-functioning drunk, isn’t going to seem drunk most of the time. And Chinaski doesn’t. None of his behaviour is attributable to just being blasted out of his mind on cheap hooch. His every action seems consistent with his personality, rational even, especially when he’s acting like a complete prick.

What’s most striking about this film is that Dillon plays the character as if he’s lifted from the late 50s, early 60s, but the setting is clearly contemporary Los Angeles. It gives it all an anachronistic feel, like he’s a man out of time and place, even though he is at home in the sleazy bars and hovel apartments that he finds himself in.

He walks around like he is sure of himself and his worth, but is mostly oblivious to the world around him. The writing is seen as a potential escape from his crushing poverty, but he seems to want to write regardless of the constant rejection from publishers, because he flat out needs to write. It is the only worthwhile thing he can do.

One woman, Jan (Lili Taylor) shares his squalid life and addiction, and wants to keep him poor and obedient at home. She is not above whoring around or taunting him into beating other guys up. It is a truly spot-on performance by Taylor, but the character is a horrible skank to watch.

Using the standard Bukowskian theme of women competing for his affections, there’s also the rich girl who likes him for reasons mysterious to anyone apart from a therapist. Laura (Marisa Tomei) is also a skank, but she’s able to give Chinaski a taste of the high life, because she’s a rich skank. Personally she’s a girl after my own heart and liver, but she’s even more dangerous than the other girl.

I’m unsure where they were going with this flick, what feelings they wanted to evoke in an audience. Chinaski isn’t really a pitiable character, nor is he particularly admirable because the snippets of poetry or writing we hear voice-overed by Dillon tell us only that he can write a bit.

I’m not sure if Dillon really did a good job of capturing this character. He did well with the narration, and with walking around looking like a liquored-up, macho galoot, but I see that on the streets every day, so it doesn’t necessarily do much for me. He didn’t really look like a guy who’s a career alcoholic. I know career alcoholics. They don’t look that pretty, and they don’t play that nice with the other kids in the playground.

As a work based on a Bukowksi novel, it’s probably a great adaptation. Bukowski’s prose writing is focused very much on all these exact themes, and suffers from (or enjoys) the same endless repetition of experiences and situations. Readers who remember the Barbet Schroder film Barfly with Mickey Rourke from the 80s might find some of the preceding review vaguely familiar, because it’s essentially the same story. This version is significantly less, and I hesitate to use the words, charming and enjoyable. I think films which are studies in addiction and desperate living need to be as ‘real’ as possible, and Factotum is certainly more believable and down to earth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s that entertaining.

There is one great shot in the flick, where Chinaski takes a job in a rundown building putting brake parts into boxes. After being told what to do by the boss, and told not to smoke, he immediately smokes, and stares aimlessly out the window. The next shot films him from outside the building, as the camera slowly pulls back further and further, showing his window as being the only one in the wall of that building, as the voiceover describes what poetry and the writing of it is. It perfectly encapsulates how isolated Chinaski is and out of place he is in the modern world. It’s a virtuoso shot in an otherwise mundane flick.

I definitely got more out of watching the Bukowski documentary Born Into This last year, which lacked the convenient veneer of fiction to muddy the waters. And it also made more of the point that, as a lousy human being, Bukowski still managed to be a phenomenal writer.

In spite of, and maybe not solely because of, his drinking.

6 times at least that I have bought drinks for all my friends out of 10

“All I want to do is get my cheque and get drunk.” – Henry Chinaski, Factotum.