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August 14, 2006 9:40 AM
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Ham-Fisted: Bent Hamer's "Factotum"

Matt Dillon in a scene from Bent Hamer's "Factotum." Image courtesy of IFC Films.

The effort necessary to excavate Henry Charles Bukowski from beneath the weight of his cult is significant; I've never been entirely convinced that it's worth the effort. At one time his might've been a rare voice that said exactly what a disgruntled few needed to hear -- reading a piece by Brendan Mullen addressing the countercultural vacuum of Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, in which he describes the only worthwhile weekly reading in town as Bukowski's "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" column for the L.A. Free Press, threw things into a much-needed context for me.

But this self-conscious art brut mouthpiece of the fringe has been anything but marginal for many years (a recent New Yorker consideration noted the irony that Bukowski was now published by Rupert Murdoch), and he doesn't weather the inflation to cultural avatar well -- a man who, by his admission, "wrote the same thing over and over again," he pounded out short, easily navigable sentences and outlined his dropout ethos in triplicate, a formula ensuring that copies of "Ham on Rye" could pass between generations of zitty 9th graders as readily as a well-thumbed copy of Oui, and be received as scripture. Better that Bukowski should break them in than Ayn Rand, but is this it..?

Bukowski the Man is dead; long live Bukowski the Lifestyle Brand. The past couple of years alone have seen a bumper crop of Buk ephemera -- he's already been the subject of a theatrically released biographical doc ("Bukowski: Born Into This"), Barbet Schroeder's much-bootlegged four-hour interview series with the author from 1982 has become domestically available on DVD ("The Charles Bukowski Tapes"), and he's even lent his name to a middling Modest Mouse song (the tune does contain as accurate a critique as the writer will ever get: "He's a pretty good read/ But God who'd wanna be such an asshole?"). And now yet another title now joins the list of celluloid Bukowski adaptations: "Factotum," a filming of his 1975 novel of dead-end odd-jobbing; like all noteworthy adaptations of the author to date, it's helmed by a European (even now Bukowski's domestic fame lags behind his reputation abroad), here relatively unknown Norwegian director Bent Hamer.

The go-to point of comparison for Hamer's film is Schroeder's 1987 "Barfly," from an original screenplay by Bukowski, which likewise attached a contemporary A-list name to the role of Henry Chinaski, alter-ego navigator of Buk's hiccupped autobiographical aggrandizements ("Barfly" starred Mickey Rourke; "Factotum," Matt Dillon). The films share overlapping incidents; the specifics of Rourke-Chinaski's barstool pick-up of Faye Dunaway repeat in Dillon-Chinaski's meeting Marisa Tomei -- he buys the lady a drink with his last buck, she decides to bring him home, they pick up liquor on the tab of her wealthy benefactor. But further comparison of these movies only serves to remind us how the expectations of what independent film culture can accomplish have diminished through the last 20 years, and highlight the banal superfluity of Hamer's movie. "Factotum" is a lugubrious morning-after picture of pasty flesh under fluorescent light, fussily dingy apartments with nice downtown views, scene transitions lubricated by Kristin Asbjornesen's blue-note caterwauling of Bukowski poetry on the soundtrack. Whatever you may make of Buk's Skid Row Romanticism, "Barfly" -- lushly lensed by Robby Mueller, sells it -- the film's as much jukebox Saturday night as beer-shit Sunday morning, a necessary contrast that "Factotum" suffers from the lack of.

"Factotum"'s dour deadpan may be a fairly faithful translation of the author's adjective-parched David Goodis prose, but it fails to pick up any of the brio that's behind his words. To give credit, Dillon's D.O.A. delivery puts over some very funny scenes, such as the exchange that comes when Chinaski informs a potential employer that he's working on a novel about "Everything": "You mean, for instance, it's about cancer?" "Yes." "How about my wife?" "She's in there too." But I infinitely prefer Rourke's shambolic, swaying black-and-blue bare-knuckler, whose W.C. Fields cadence evokes Bukowski's own lilt. The bravado of Rourke's paunchy gamecock strut, combined with his feminine delicacy, is enough to put flesh on Bukowski's folk hero seducer/ bar-clearing brawler myth-of-self. In "Factotum," one of Chinaski's girls, Jan (Lili Taylor), wants to berate him, so she shrieks: "When I first met you I liked the way you walked across a room... you walked like you were going to walk through a wall" -- it doesn't make a bit of sense with Dillon's stoic slob, but it's a compliment Rourke could carry. (If people are going to insist on continuing to make 'The Adventures of Hank Chinaski,' I'd like to nominate the comedian Rick Shapiro for the part.)

Lili Taylor in a scene from Bent Hamer's "Factotum." Image courtesy of IFC Films.

Probably the most suspect decision of Hamer's "Factotum" is to take Chinaski's receipt of an acceptance slip for the publication of one of his short stories, an incident that occurs about a quarter of the way through the novel, and transplant it to the film's finale, turning the whole thing into a lowlife lit "8 Mile," an inspirational speech to keep a thousand bad artists plugging away. If I wasn't put off enough by the PR geniuses who very obviously manufactured the film's positive pull-quote studded Wikipedia entry ("With exceptional performances that capture the intoxicated journey through life and art"), I'd have to despise "Factotum" for encouraging another J.T. LeRoy generation of bologna-on-rye.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

Take 2

By Justin Stewart

Told on his premiere day at a job sorting bicycle parts that smoking in the building is strictly forbidden, the very first thing Hank Chinaski does once his supervisor leaves the room is light up. It's not that he's a particularly far-gone nicotine addict (booze is his lifeblood), it's just that these small fits of rebellion are, along with liquor and writing, the only moments that allow such a nuanced, feeling guy like Henry to endure the deadening 8-to-5 toil. The act might seem petty, impotent, infantile; but what better reaction to a job that is the same? If you're not on Henry's side, then whose side are you on?

"Factotum"'s primary flaw is not egregious, but it's all too common among adaptations -- it simply goes through the motions. Chinaski is given a few monologues taken from other Bukowski works, which is an inspired and welcome touch, but the wealth of Hamer's film adheres to dutiful (and too often flat) rehashings of the novel's farcical gags. Of course, there is no inherent violation in a strict adaptation, but this is Bukowski! You'd expect some riffing, some danger, but all you get is a respectful impersonation from Matt Dillon, whose viscous cadence makes waiting for the retorts (which you know are coming) something of a chore.

Still, if you can bypass why-does-this-exist reservations you'll discover a perfectly likeable "indie gem." (Produced by Jim Jarmusch associate Jim Stark and co-starring Lili Taylor, it's 1989 all over again.) Taylor's the best thing going here, vividly inhabiting the role of Chinaski's seedy, slutty, insecure girlfriend, Jan. You can feel her hangovers, especially during a funny long take that has Henry and Jan trading off trips (crawls, really) to the toilet to hurl. When Henry re-encounters Jan at the hotel where she works as a maid, the delighted innocence in her smile as she sees him vanquishes the image of her as a screaming horror--now there's just the patient loving from the kind of girl who would put up with a cad like Chinaski.

[Justin Stewart is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor in a scene from Bent Hamer's "Factotum." Image courtesy of IFC Films.

Take 3

By Nicolas Rapold

One of the wage-slave gigs taken and abandoned by Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon) in "Factotum" entails feather-dusting a gargantuan statue in the lobby of a newspaper building. The memorable image (which could have been lifted from some lost silent comedy) evokes what might have been the trap of Bent Hamer's film: idol-polishing -- burnishing the self-maintained, alcohol-preserved myth of one of America's most popular lifestyle poets. Casting Dillon seemed both inevitable (he's a former teen heartbreaker who always jumps at the chance to go "antihero"), and inadvisable (he recently put himself on the knife's edge of self-parody in the camp melodrama "Crash").

But, despite a title that suggests an arty Cannes head-scratcher (half-right), "Factotum" is clear-eyed and even modest about choosing and doing a couple of things well, and a shortcut to its simple pleasures is to forget all about Bukowski and watch Dillon. The actor brings a stone face (more immobilized than deadpan) to Hank's self-seriousness and macho wisdom, presenting a life of affable booze-hounding and writing, while smuggling Bukowski's own prose past the line of irony. Dillon's Hank always speaks as if writing (deliberately and precisely), and "Factotum" indulges the western-like fantasy of the truth-teller who sees and shoots right through you, as in Hank's laconic break-up with scrappy girlfriend Jan (Lili Taylor). Dillon and Taylor sneak a surprising tenderness by us, one grounded in small gestures amidst the big fuss-making of putting up with another person's shit. Hamer intrudes sometimes with his propensity for blackout-sketches and the well-lit, toned cinematography that for some reason has become the idiom for deadpan. But by knowing just how to pitch Bukowski's self-aggrandizing pseudo-stoicism, he and Dillon sustain a distinctly minor but diverting piece.

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, the film editor of Stop Smiling, and a regular contributor to the New York Sun.]

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