The River

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Factotum: n., an employee or assistant with a wide range of duties; man of many jobs

Factotum: 1975 Charles Bukowski novel, published by Black Sparrow Press

Factotum: 2005 film staring Matt Dillon

I was running late and missed the first five minutes of the latest Bukowski flick, "Factotum." I half jogged the block from the back parking lot to the ancient, street-front theater. Peachtree Street. Buckhead. The attendant had left the ticket window, but he saw me coming and hustled over. “Has it started?” yeah, just a few minutes ago. I paid and went in.

There were five or six other patrons. I settled in. Chinaski was looking for a job. The movie is all about Chinaksi, Charles Bukowski’s alter ego in his stories and poems. I read later that I had missed the scene with our anti-hero leaving a delivery truck parked outside a bar in order to shirk for while. The bar is where his boss found him and fired him.

In the novel Factotum, Charles Bukowski chronicles his experience as a young man who rejects society – WWII, wage slavery, house in the suburbs – in favor of getting drunk as often as possible. And writing short stories and poetry. As he tells one employer: "All I want to do is get my check and get drunk. Now, that may not sound noble, but it's my choice."

I don’t know that I really felt the character’s desperation, his drunkenness or his squalid existence. Nor does one really feel it in Buk’s work. It’s too pulpy for that. Or not pulpy enough, perhaps. One merely gets a nice, safe rejectionist buzz. To my mind, that’s a good thing. Good drugs are hard to find. Or is it hard drugs are good to find? I can’t ever remember.

The movie stumbles, not drunkenly, unfortunately, when it turns to Chinaski’s horse racing habit. In one scene, the race is much too short, no doubt cut by the filmmaker for fear of boring the audience with a longer scene. But what you get is a shorthand version of what should be a full minute of drama personified – a thoroughbred horse race. So the scene becomes one, for me, that tells me that Chinaski and friend bet on a race and won, but doesn’t convey the reality of it. Same goes for the rest of the movie.

As a sometimes racetrack railbird, maybe I’m ruined for movies with horse racing scenes. I felt the same way about “Seabiscuit.” Too pretty, too pat, too much fantasy, not enough reality.

Yet “Factotum” works as a stylized working man’s blues. Like “Seabiscuit,” the photography is saturated with rich color, yet this time it doesn’t register quite so hallmark empty. Rather, it’s more of a dignified look to fit with Dillon’s tidy, unhurried drunk.

Matt Dillon establishes Chinaski as someone who understands that the battle is for an inch of ground, an original philosophy, an intact soul. He does so in the accretion of detail, a tour de force of show, don’t’ tell that surpasses Mickey Rourke’s more elaborate portrayal. Dillon’s is no less stylized, yet the deliberate movements, the fearless, unblinking countenance, the slouch, the mannerisms, the way he carries himself – there is no doubt that Dillon has read his share of Bukowski, and that his performance reflects the literature moreso than the man, even though the two are inseparable. It’s also a safe bet that Dillon watched the recent Bukowski documentary, “Born into This.”

To its immense credit, this movie isn’t just a biopic, a la “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” where the main reason to care about the world presented is that a tragically gifted figure walked through it.

The movie instead attempts to create a world as extension of the main character – it’s a blue, blue collar world in which our protagonist confronts the absurdity of wage slavery.

The film subtly contrasts the gleaming office towers of downtown with the gritty neighborhoods. The people Chinaski encounters, the managers and bosses he must convince to hire him, the unemployment clerks, have a slick, comfortable look. They aren’t the rich executives in the office towers, but they have found their way to positions above the factotums, the workers.

The camera is confident without being flashy, although there is one shot that is a standout: Chinaski leaning on a window sill, smoking a cigarette on an upper floor of an auto parts factory, the camera moving from inside to a close shot from outside, pulling back until Chinaski becomes a solitary figure in urban landscape, framed by a window, itself isolated in a massive brick wall.

The factotum has his ace in the hole. He’s found a tool, words, that he uses to hold fast to an inviolable center. Dillon plays Chinaski as if that center, which is finally a refusal to relinquish dignity, is a precious, even fragile, weight.

Dillon is at an interesting stage of his career, and he’s had his share. From the bully in “My Bodyguard” to the heroin addict in “Drugstore Cowboy” to the sadistic yet recognizably human police officer in “Crash,” Dillon has consistently worked the independent margins to startling effect.

The most startling thing here, though, is that someone with Dillon’s looks would even attempt Chinaski. Although I respect his talent, I was surprised at how well he pulled it off. His performance simply states, “this what I was feeling, this is how I lived. It may not look noble to you, but it’s my choice.”

wanna see it, wanna see it .. thanks for this whetting-of-appetite review.
That's the most convincing movie review I've read in a long, long time. And I don't even know Charles Bukowski, only "of" him. I'll see the movie.
Hmm, I didn't know that Dillon was doing a Chinaski movie. Thanks Bruce.

I watched the Buk documentry "Born Into This" just a little while ago and enjoyed it. You should check it out.

Have you ever seen "Let It Ride" with Richard Dryfuss? That's my favorite race track movie. I love the way it breaks formula. How many other movies do you know of where the hero just can't stop winning?
folks, I am biased because I went through a serious Bukowski phase in my twenties. Still love the man's writing. So I appreciate any movie that makes a decent attempt to respect the work. I liked Barfly as well.

I did see "Born Into This" Les, and found it wonderful. My review is behind the link in this post.
I'm going to go put "Let It Ride" on my Netflix. Thanks for the tip, Les.
Yeah, Matt Dillon as Chinaski would be a signal to me: stay away. But you've got me hooked.
re: the link
And here I thought I was reading closely. Whatta boob. Must have gapped some where between there and the comment box.

I loved Barfly.
Haven't seen the german movie based on Bukowski's work yet. Heard it wasn't too good ...

Okay. I'm off to read your thoughts on Born into This now. Cheers.
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