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Factotum

There are writers who craft novels purely from the stuff of their fanciful imaginations, and there are writers who work almost entirely from the details of their own lives, sorting through their personal demons by dissecting, examining, and repackaging all of the small joys and indignities of their day-to-day existences. Charles Bukowski was a master of the latter style. A prolific writer, he turned out thousands of poems and hundreds of short stories in his 73 years, seeing over 50 of his books in print, including six novels. Heavily influenced by Franz Kafka, Knut Hamsen, and Anton Chekhov, his tales were heavily autobiographical, focusing on his own womanizing, alcoholism, and his continuing misadventures working at low-paying jobs to support his writing. The life of his alter ego Henry Chinaski can be followed through the five novels published before his death, Post Office, Factotum, Ham on Rye, Women, and Hollywood. In these stories, Chinaski, born in Germany and raised on L.A.'s east side, takes abuse both at home from his violent father and at school for his terrible acne and German accent. After leaving home at a young age, he becomes street-wise and self-destructive, developing a hardened, bitter exterior that covers a vulnerable core. Chinaski's weaknesses are booze and broads, and the beauty of Bukowski's writing — caustic, honest, and brilliantly crafted — lies in his ability to shine a painful light on the life of an angry, lonely man and the daily indignities that he endures.

Factotum (2005), based on Bukowski's 1975 novel, is a fascinating document, mainly because it more accurately represents Bukowski's writing than the over-the-top melodrama Barfly (1987), which presented Chinaski as a drunk first, with his writing taking a back seat. Matt Dillon plays him as a withdrawn bear of a man, devoted to his writing while suffering through a string of lousy jobs so he can pay for his liquor, cigarettes, and his nights in sleazy rented rooms. Work, for Chinaski, is a means to an end — he shows up, does what they ask, and gets a paycheck. When one angry boss fires him, telling him that he's hasn't been giving anything on the job, Chinaski wearily replies, "I've given you my time, which is all I have to give — it's all any man has to give." He finds solace with another skeezy alcoholic named Jan (Lili Taylor), about whom he notes, "Jan was an excellent fuck… she took it like a knife that was killing her." He has a brief fling with another damaged woman, Laura (Marisa Tomei), gets repeated rejections of his work, and takes job after crappy job at an ice house, a pickle factory, and packing brake shoes into cartons. He loses these jobs by skipping out on them in favor of a trip to the racetrack or an afternoon in a bar, his only constant being his commitment to his writing.

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Matt Dillon is superb in Factotum, overweight and moving with a slowness born of knowing that there's simply nothing in life worth hurrying towards. His Chinaski is a tight-lipped cynic, saving his words for the page and approaching everything with a fearless sort of ennui — he's a man who's already seen so much pain that he doesn't expect any surprises. It's his best performance in a lengthy career, and his work alone makes Factotum worth seeing. But there's more to the film than just Dillon. Norwegian director Bent Hamer, who gained international notice for his marvelously dry Kitchen Stories (2003) captures the unapologetically sleazy underbelly of Bukowski's world perfectly, avoiding the campy extremes of Barbet Schroeder's Barfly and filming the picture in the gray decay of industrial Minneapolis rather than Bukowski's sunnier L.A. The score, by Scandinavian jazz vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen, is dead-on as well, setting Bukowski's poems to music and quietly laying guitar, cello, and violin beneath the action, adding a quiet sense of longing and hope to what might otherwise come off as painfully bleak. Factotum is a marvelous ode to Bukowski, as well as a brilliant examination of one sort of writing life, about which Bukowski/Chinaski/Dillon says in voiceover, "This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs, and maybe your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery, isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance. Of how much you really want to do it."

IFC Films' DVD release of Factotum offers a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) — it's very clean, but it's also dark and often quite soft. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good, showcasing the soundtrack nicely. Extras include a Norwegian TV documentary about Hamer packaged as a "making-of" featurette (30 min.), an ad for the soundtrack, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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