FACTOTUM – The DVD Review
Review by Sam Moffitt
Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting on a bar stool, in a bar, and when I say bar I don’t mean some uptown fancy bistro with little foo-foo umbrellas in the drinks and ferns hanging from the ceiling. I’m talking about a bar man, a dive, a saloon, a watering hole, like you find in south St. Louis where the doors stay open in the summer so neighborhood dogs can run in and out and drunks can stagger out and get some fresh air without having to try and work a door knob, so they can stagger out and get a grip before they heave up all that beer they’ve been drinking and paid for out of money they should have spent on the rent.
So anyway you’re sitting in this low class joint, drinking beer, and the occasional shot and trying to make sense out of the jabber coming from the other drunks in the room and knowing that you’re going to have to make it to the bathroom or something awful is going to happen. And suddenly you realize that if you have just one more drink, one more beer, you may not make it to the bathroom, you may fall off that bar stool, hit the floor and pass out and soil yourself three different ways. And when I say “soil yourself” you know what I mean, I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you, I’m not going to get that graphic, I’m going for the high ground here.
What? That’s never happened to you? Yeah, me neither, but I’ve come close, way too close some times. I used to spend time in bars, drinking and talking trash, like any drunk will do. Hell I spent time in the Navy after all, drinking to excess goes with the uniform.
Which brings me to Factotum, and the incredible career of Charles Bukowski. You see, apparently Bukowski spent a lot of time in bars, a whole lot of time. In fact he not only made a lifestyle choice to stay drunk most of his adult life he turned being drunk into an art form, a statement, a performance art piece if you will.
Factotum is not the first film based on Bukowski’s work. But it is the most recent (that I am aware of) and the closest to the spirit of his writing, in my humble opinion anyway. Directed by Bent Hamer a Norwegian director, probably most well known for Kitchen Stories, a droll recounting of a strange social experiment in Norway in the 1950’s. Matt Dillon gives an outstanding performance as Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s thinly veiled fictional version of himself. We’ve had other Chinaski’s, I’ll get to them in a bit, but Dillon nails Bukowski’s weird body language and gruff way of speaking, he also nails the misogyny and the meanness and everything else that goes with a dedicated drunk.
There’s no story really, like all of Bukowski’s writing we follow Hank, as he is called, as he gets jobs, loses jobs, gets involved with women, leaves women, finds other jobs, gets into arguments, goes to the race track to bet on the horses and through it all he keeps drinking…..and writing.
This is what I find incredible about Bukowski’s career as a writer. The man had over 45 books published, in his lifetime. More keep coming out as his diary’s and journals and letters keep getting edited into new volumes.
Have you ever tried to do anything creative while drunk? Seriously, have you ever tried to do, I don’t know, writing or photography, paint a portrait, dance the watusi? Wait scratch that one, dancing, everybody thinks they can dance better and sing karaoke better if they’ve been drinking. That doesn’t mean they can do it well either. In fact have you ever tried to do anything while drinking that requires any effort at all? Like house cleaning or wash and wax your car? You see where I’m going here, I don’t know about you but if I’ve been drinking that’s about all I’m doing, that and trying not to pass out or disgrace myself in a room full of strangers or get my ass kicked by bikers for saying the wrong thing.
Not Bukowski, apparently he did all his writing either drunk or hung over, that’s what we see in Factotum. He admitted as much in interviews, he never, to my knowledge went anywhere near AA, never admitted to being an alcoholic, but he never denied it either. And so how he turned out a solid body of work that is imminently readable, and filmable, while stewed to the gills and three sheets to the wind is some kind of miracle. The guy must have had incredible will power just to get it done and not sit passed out in a chair like most drunks will do.
Factotum captures all that is great about Bukowski’s writing, and all that is sick and mean and really down in the gutter. Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei play two of the women who pass through Hank’s life and they are terrific. They also look terrific and to me that’s kind of an issue, none of the women in Factotum look like the kind of women you see hanging around in bars. Let’s face the facts, drinking actually makes you physically ugly, it changes and coarsens your appearance. The real Bukowski himself was ugly as a shit house rat sitting on a mud fence.
In fact the women, and the men who portray Bukowski, in any of the films, generally look too good to be alcoholics. Another odd thing, all the films based on Bukowski’s writing have been directed by Europeans.
Firstly we had Tales of Ordinary Madness directed by Marco Ferreri, an Italian, in 1981 and with Ben Gazzara as Charles Serking and Ornella Muti and Susan Tyrell as the women in his life (ok Susan Tyrell looks like she belongs in a bar, but Ornella Muti?).
Probably the most well known of the Bukowski films, Barfly 1987 was directed by Barbet Schroeder, born in Iran but raised in France, and starred Mickey Roarke as Henry Chinaski and Faye Dunaway and Alice Krige. This was the one Bukowski himself put down and hated, because, as he claimed, Roarke was a typical Hollywood pretty boy and not the drink ravaged writer Bukowski saw himself as (hey at least he was honest!) Mickey Roarke a pretty boy?
We also have Crazy Love, a Belgian film also made in 1987 (a good year for Bukowski adaptations apparently!) directed by Dominic Deruddere and based on three different Bukowski short stories.
All of these films have something to recommend, and they also have their drawbacks. Crazy Love for instance is very intense but more than a little depressing. In fact any movie about drunks is going to be depressing, ever seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?
In Factotum we see Chinaski leaving work early to go to the track and bet on a sure thing. We also see him fish his wallet out or a public toilet to retrieve his money so he can make the bet, an incident he returned to again and again in his writing. When he is hooked up with Marisa Tomei’s character she has a sugar daddy who will buy her anything as long as she keeps him company. And of course all she wants is to drink, preferably with Hank. Hank can be sweet with his women but he can also be a right bastard, we see him bitch slap Lili Taylor’s character in front of witnesses and daring them to do something about it. Lili’s character also gives him the crabs and helps him with the medication for getting rid of them when the treatment goes horribly wrong. We also see Dillon’s version of Chinaski push around a dwarf co-worker a lot smaller than him, as he’s quitting a job, naturally.
Dillon gives one of the best performances of his career, he comes the closest to the real Charles Bukowski and you can check it out by seeing some of the documentaries about this most unique writer. Netflix has 6 documentaries about the man, I haven’t seen them all but I can guarantee you will get the real deal, straight up, no chaser if you watch the real man in action.
Factotum has a few special features. A making of documentary is interesting, and almost entirely in Norwegian. Apparently made for Norwegian television it has scenes from Kitchen Stories (a very good movie by the way) and other films directed by Bent Hamer. We learn that Factotum’s budget was much lower than most American films. There is also a promotional video for the film’s soundtrack and the trailer. The dvd starts off with some other IFC trailers.
And finally the best place to get Bukowski is on the printed page, I have not read all his books but enough to know the guy was an American original, one of a kind. He chose to focus his blood shot eyes on the people who never get noticed, the bottom feeders, the fringe dwellers, whatever you want to call them. He wrote about the drunks and the junkies and the prostitutes, people who could not hold a job and people who hung on to miserable jobs because they knew nothing else. He wrote about what it was like to live in decrepit rooming houses, eat in dodgy diners, wear old clothes falling apart, get involved with people you know are not going to do right by you, and yes, waking up in a puddle of your own sick wondering where in the hell you are at and how did you get there! He celebrated the kind of people you and I would avoid on the street, and found their humanity and held it up for respectable society to consider, and maybe see a reflection of themselves. Start with Post Office or The Most Beautiful Woman In Town or Factotum for that matter, oh hell start anywhere, most libraries have at least two or three of his books.
His writing style and his career could never be pigeonholed. A lot of critics and readers tried to put him with the Beats but he refused to be typecast. Right or wrong he lived his life the way he wanted and created his own art with no compromise what so ever.
I’ve touched on all things Bukowski, and not just Factotum for a reason, all the films, all the documentaries and all his writing, all tend to blur together after a while. If you’re drunk enough the room starts to spin, and that’s what happens if you spend any time at all in Bukowski’s world, events, dates, locations, people, all blur together into a pixilated mess. But there’s always tomorrow to maybe sober up and get a new job and earn enough money to go out and get drunk again, and then write about it later on and earn a little more money by selling the story to an underground magazine.
Last call? Bartender! I’m buying a round for the house!