Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) has admiring readers, though my low tolerance for drunks inoculates me from being one of their number who dote on him as “laureate of American lowlife”/“the bard of Skid Row.” I can enjoy some of his sardonic observations, and some of this style is preserved in voiceovers by Matt Dillon, who plays Bukowski’s surrogate Henry Chinaski, in the adaptation Bent Hammer directed, of Bukowski’s second (1972) novel Factotum (with material from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through Fire, and The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken over the Ship). And some more underlies the illustration of his series of unskilled jobs, soul-corroding jobs for a would-be poet (though the movie Henry Chinaski churns out short stories, not poem), that were available in the 1940s (when Bukowski came of age) or the early-1970s (when he wrote his autobiographical novel) than now. (Considering how high unemployment is for the young in the US and other western societies, I wonder what temporary jobs deadbeat, alcoholic would-be writers can get now! BTW, Bukowski held down a job as a letter file clerk for the US Post Office for more than ten years and was a letter carrier nearly three years.)
One of my problems with reading Bukowski (shown above) is believing that the surly drunk he portrays (as Henry Chinaski) is such a “chick magnet.” I am aware that alcoholic women make self-defeating choices of sexual companions. Casting the likeable Matt Dillon alleviates this problem of plausibility (or considering the sexploits to be fantasies rather than reportage from Bukowski). On the other hand, I find it difficult to credit the two outbreaks of violence from Chinaski as played by Dillon. They seem forced-even for someone whose judgment is impaired by booze and provoked by Lilli Taylor, who plays Jan, one of the two deeply debauched alcoholic women who takes Chinaski in (the other is Marisa Tomei, in a performance even more exposed than the ones she played in “The Perez Family” and “The Wrestler”).
Matt Dillon, who convincingly played a junkie in Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy,” and a cocky gambler in “Big Town,” convinces me as an alcohol-abuser who manages to write a lot (slapdash and unedited as Bukowski’s writings seem to me to be; Bukowski is not an instance of a writer who drank to provide an excuse for being blocked/unable to get words down) and maintains some sense of irony about his work (his real work of writing as well as the jobs that provide money for booze). And is willing to exploit the women who are attracted to him… (Adrienne Shelly played another before being brutally murdered.)
Lilli Taylor seems easily to play raw needy women), so that Dillon does not need to take action, only to react (or ignore what she demands). Tomei plays a drunk only somewhat more vulnerable than Taylor’s herein. Is Dillon’s Chinaski “passive”? Well, he’s pretty “impassive.” And Dillon is much better, IMO, than Mickey Rourke’s as the Bukowski surrogate in “Barfly”, the overamplified 1987 movie directed by Barbet Schroeder from a script by Bukowski.
There are some moments of black comedy in the pickle factory and in Jan’s apartment, though I don’t think the movie in general is a “black comedy” (Norwegian director Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories” is more prototypically one.) The absurdities are not exaggerated, though there is a vaguely nourish look provided by Norwegian Cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund that fits with the pulpy qualities of Bukowski’s writing, (His last novel was titled Pulp, btw.) And the already-mentioned voiceovers indicate something of what Chinaski is writing. For movies about writers, “show, don’t tell” is not applicable. There are scenes of Chinaski writing, but showing him reinforced by alcohol and cigarettes while writing longhand is not especially edifying. Reporting “”Even at my lowest times, I can feel the words bubbling inside of me,” is more illuminating, I think. The way his work scenes are shot are, however, successes of “show don’t tell.”
As with “Vereda Tropical,” that this character could write anything of interest is fairly mystifying. It’s easier to show the love lives and sexual discords of writers (On the Road, I Killed My Mother, Tom and Viv, Nora, etc.) or the workplace failures than to show creativity happening.
The DVD of “Factotum” includes a bonus feature on direcor/coproduer and coadapter Bent Hamer’s (Kitchen Stories) career in Norway and a trailer/music video of Kristin Asbjørnsen from the movie’s soundtrack.
Having played Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane, James Franco has said that he is going to film an adaptation of Bukowski’s 1982 novel Ham on Rye. There is also an hour-long 1973 documentary about the considerably craggier-looking (than Dillon or Franco) Bukowski mostly in San Francisco, titled “Bukowski” and a four-hour Barbet Schroeder interview, “The Bukowski Tapes” (1987) for hardcore fans.
And, though I think a “factotum” is someone who does whatever is asked of him (many kinds of work for a master/employer) at the outset of the movie the word is defined as someone who takes a lot of jobs (that is, for a succession of employers). That definition fits what Bukowski portrayed for Henry Chinaski.