Dir. Bent Hamer, Norway/US, 2005, 94 mins
Cast: Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Didier Flamand, Marisa Tomei, Fisher Stevens
'If you're going to try, go all the way' intones Matt Dillon as Charles Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski in Factotum. It's an ironic comment because from one perspective Chinaski doesn't seem to try at anything at all throughout the movie. He moves from job to job, working in a pickle factory one minute and a museum the next, completely uninspired to make any effort. He's the quintessential slacker, the Godfather of the cinema of Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch and others. He believes in three things: books, booze and broads in that order. But he thinks that most books are phony.
Oh and gambling. Chinaski appears in a number of Bukowski's novels, all of them with elements of autobiography, and while Matt Dillon is much more handsome than Bukowski was, one senses a spiritual kinship assisted no end by Dillon's willingness to bulk out for the role. Bukowski published work such as All the Assholes in the World and Mine, Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills and Horses Don't Bet on People and Neither Do I. His wilful idiosyncrasy extended to scatological subject matter couched in a soulful street poetic of drunks and bums, barflies, deadbeats and itinerants: apathetic outsiders struggling against their own inertia to survive.
It might seem a strange choice for Norwegian director Bent Hamer but his co-writer is Jim Stark, producer of Jarmusch's Mystery Train, and his executive producer is Christine Walker who produced American Splendour, the film about the cartoonist Robert Crumb who illustrated Bukowski's work. Perhaps this is why Hamer handles the material so well (beyond his predictable teenage affection for the author). In particular the women in Factotum come across better than those familiar with Bukowski might expect given the accusations of misogyny made against him. Llli Taylor and Marisa Tomei play delinquent neurotics but they do so with gutter panache that gives as good as it gets.
Bukowski was a German immigrant so perhaps Hamer's European perspective on Americana is more appropriate than it might initially appear. Meanwhile production designer Eve Cauley Turner creates a stylised meld of vaguely period interiors, drab primary colours and modern cityscapes in a non-specific environment. This implicitly belies any notion of Bukowski's work as realistic - it's really all about him rather than the world around him - although the artifice may allow the unwary viewer to sentimentalise social exclusion and Chinaski's brawling with women and men, which is otherwise admirably true to its source in its indifference for political correctness.
Bukowski's homespun existentialism is a cousin of the Beats in its lack of pretension, and disregard for form, but his jaded sensibility is more akin to the macho pessimism of Ernest Hemingway, the misanthropy of Kurt Vonnegut, the alienation of Philip K. Dick or even the absurdism of Albert Camus - closet romantics all of them - rather than the optimism of Jack Kerouac. It's significant that Bukowski's stories, like those of the existentialists, take place in cities: he feels an entrapment not shared by Kerouac for whom the open spaces of America represented the possibility of freedom.
Hamer's absurdist outlook, exemplified in previous film Kitchen Stories, proves ideal here to capture the line between humour and despair as Chinaski goes from job to job finding himself in strange situations alien to his temperament, which he's compelled to pursue and then forsake, that inevitably form the core of his writing. Like a latter-day Sisyphus who in Greek myth was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity and who would have to start all over again when it escaped his grasp, Chinaski becomes the kind of absurd hero that Camus would have recognised. His commitment to writing in the face of that absurdity turns Factotum into a kind of modern epic, or anti-epic if you prefer. As Chinaski says: 'If you're going to try, go all the way.or don't try at all.'
Icon Home Entertainment in association with Warner Home Video have announced the UK Region 2 DVD release of Factotum for 3rd April 2006 priced at £17.99. Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) works in factories and warehouses to support what he really wants to do: drink, bet on the horses, take up with women as rootless as he is and, above all, write stories that no one wants to publish.
Based on the novel by Charles Bukowski, FACTOTUM is the story of a man living on the edge, of a writer who is willing to risk everything to make sure that his life is his poetry.
Presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen with English DD5.1 Surround audio, bonus features include Deleted Scenes (15 mins), Horshoe Short Film (7 mins) and trailers for Factotum and forthcoming Icon titles Match Point and World's Fastest Indian.