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Friday, Aug. 17, 2007
INTO THE BOWELS OF BUKOWSKI
Walking the walk of ordinary madness
The work of poet/author Charles Bukowski, America's "Budweiser Baudelaire," has always had a kind of contradictory appeal. On the one hand, Bukowski, a misanthropic alcoholic, delivered a harsh, no-holds-barred account of life on the skid-row underbelly of society. And yet he did so with such prosaic elegance, with such power, wit and confidence, that it's hard not to romanticize the often miserable experiences of drink and cheap women that he describes.
"Living is a matter of / adjusting to / zero. /Death, like life, / solves / nothing." That's the kind of sentiment Bukowski is known for, but one so often missing from the films about the man.
Bukowski's work was autobiographical, and several films have given us stories with the author as the central figure. 1987's "Barfly," with Mickey Rourke playing Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, is a great, truly funny film, but one that makes alcoholism-induced cirrhosis of the liver less sordid and more a sort of wacky adventure. Even Bukowski's nihilism becomes a one-liner. (Faye Dunaway: "I hate people, don't you?" Rourke: "I don't mind them, but I seem to feel better when they're not around.")
1981's "Tales of Ordinary Madness" took a similar tone, albeit with another standout performance by Ben Gazzara as Bukowski. It was 1991's "Lune Froide," however — based on Bukowski's "Copulating Mermaid of Venice" — that did the best job of capturing the vibe: the wild, cathartic joy of over-imbibing, the freedom of rootlessness, coupled with cold, bleary-eyed shock of the morning after, and the bad memories that won't fade.
"Lune Froide" was one of the best films of the '90s, and also one that seemed to nail the Bukowski experience so closely that it put off others from trying. Then in 2003 there was the excellent doc "Bukowski: Born Into This," and following closely on its heels was 2005's "Factotum," just now getting a Japan release. Based on his second novel from 1975, "Factotum" looks at tedious menial labor, getting fired, gambling, drinking and womanizing.
The director of "Factotum" is Norwegian Bent Hamer ("Kitchen Stories"), and he joins Marco Ferreri ("Tales of Ordinary Madness") and Patrick Bouchitey ("Lune Froide") in demonstrating that Bukowski is better appreciated outside his home country. This is perhaps due to the existentialist nature of his writing, perhaps due to his depiction of the underclass created by American capitalism, which is always a popular target in Europe.
Hamer has a good eye for proletarian America, and he clearly grasps the rhythms of the dialogue: the performances he gets here from Matt Dillon as Hank Chinaski and Lili Taylor as his boozy-floozy girlfriend Jan are spot on. Yet Hamer seems to let the mood of fellow Scandinavian Aki Kaurismaki — or that director's inspiration, Jim Jarmusch — seep into the material. (The presence here of Jarmusch screenwriter Jim Stark explains much.) Many of the scenes are cut to end on punch lines, albeit dark and deadpan ones. When his girlfriend is cheating on him, he's out of work and has a bad case of crabs, Hank muses on his troubles and declares, "These questions demand deeper consideration." Cut to a shot of him sitting at a bar nursing a pint.
"Factotum" follows Chinaski from one short-lived job to another. Working at an ice factory, he gets caught by his boss drinking during working hours. Next is his stint as a cabbie, then as a schlep at a pickle factory. Nothing lasts. He meets Jan at a bar and, happy to find a woman who enjoys alcohol as much as himself, moves in with her. Subsisting on liquid and pancakes, the two spend their time mostly in bed. Chinaski explains his attraction to her, saying, "She had a tight pussy, and took it like a knife that was killing her." In his free time he writes and dreams of being published.
Chinaski meets a gambling addict named Manny at the pickle factory, and soon the two are making a decent living by playing the horses daily. Chinaski complains that Jan is all bent out of shape because she isn't getting any. "Great lovers were always men of leisure," he notes. "I f**ked better as a bum." Manny scolds him: "A woman is a full-time job. You have to choose your profession."
Hamer does focus primarily on Bukowski's defiant wit, but — fortunately for the film — he does not try to gloss over Bukowski's dark side like "Barfly" did. Sure, Bukowski could be a wise-ass, cool and charismatic, but he could also be a walking disaster, a bully and a bad drunk. "Factotum" does, tellingly, omit the scene from the book where Chinaski essentially rapes a woman. To its credit, it keeps one where he slaps Jan around in a drunken rage. This is not pretty; it is real. Such was Bukowski.
Dillon, like Rourke, suffers from the sort of star charisma that makes it hard to play a crusty, pock-marked, hard-living alkie. To his credit, he appears with a workingman's weather-beaten sunburn on his face, and has several of Bukowski's mannerisms down pat. Dillon's rough-hewn New England townie accent has made him the blue-collar star of choice for years now, and he certainly "does prole" better than anyone else out there.
Plenty of Bukowski's diamond-sharp words grace "Factotum," and you will certainly walk away with a few quotable lines. (My fave: "If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don't even start.") Yet the romanticized dissipation on display here will no doubt appall as many as it amuses. Take the following scene: Hank gets out of bed in the morning, staggers to the toilet, pukes violently, then grabs a beer from the refrigerator. Jan is up next: She too bends over the bowl and blows chunks, then sits back and lights up a cigarette. It's a joke portrait of addiction, while also showing what it means to be hardcore in pursuit of your vices. Sounds like Bukowski to me.