Sunday, September 14, 2008

PopFlix: Factotum

Factotum is a 2005 movie inspired by Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical novel of the same name.
The Movie
Factotum is the story of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego. The movie covers several years of Chinaski’s life, as he struggles to be recognized for his writing. His greatest struggles are with his own demons. Chinaski is an alcoholic. He enjoys the pleasures of women, but not the commitment of a relationship. He despises work, and holds his jobs just long enough to pay for alcohol. He is constant only to his writing.
Matt Dillon portrays Chinaski, in an unlikely role that is not motivated by his natural good looks or charm. His performance is fantastic, maintaining a suppression of any emotion other than anger. Dillon’s looks are the only incongruity of his portrayal, as Bukowski was in life unattractive to an extreme, bearing a face pock marked by severe acne and left slack by his alcoholism.
Two other exceptional performances round out the movie. Lily Taylor portrays Jan, the woman who loves Chinaski. Marisa Tomei is Laura, one of Chinaski’s brief affairs. Both Taylor and Tomei find a hopelessness for their characters, capable of physical movement but otherwise dispirited.
The movie is directed and written by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian film maker. Enthusiasm for Bukowski has always been greater in Europe than in America. Perhaps this explains why it would be a Norwegian director that brought this film to life.
The Poet Laureate of Skid Row
Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Germany in 1920. His family escaped the economic dissolution of his birth country in 1924, eventually settling in Los Angeles, Bukowski’s home for most of his life. As a teenager, Bukowski began his love affair with alcohol, and shortly after, his affair with writing. Bukowski was always the outsider, alienated from others by his accent, the anti-German bigotry of the war years, and the scarring on his face.
In his early twenties, Bukowski published two short stories. Becoming quickly disillusioned with the publication process, Bukowski began what he calls his “ten year drunk”. He only achieved recurring success with his writing in 1969, at the age of 49.
Most of Bukowski’s work is written from the perspective of the alienated outsider. His style was raw and unsympathetic. He wrote most often of the hopelessness which binds together the lowest rung of society, thus earning the title “The Poet Laureate of Skid Row”.
Below is a short sample of Bukowski’s writing from Chapter 43 of Factotum. It's the novel's version of the opening scene of the trailer above.
I got out of bed. I slept in my shorts. The shorts were stained--we wiped with newspapers that we crumpled and softened with our hands--and I often didn't get all of it cleaned off. My shorts were also ragged and had cigarette burns in them where the hot ashes had fallen in my lap.
I went to the door and opened it. There was thick smoke in the hall. Firemen in large metal helmets with numbers on them. Firemen dragging long thick hoses. Firemen dressed in asbestos. Firemen with axes. The noise and confusion was incredible. I closed the door.
"What is it?" asked Jan.
"It's the fire department."
"Oh," she said. She pulled the covers up over her head, rolled on her side. I got in beside her and slept.
Factotum The Book, The Life, The Film
Factotum the book was published in 1975 and set in Los Angeles in 1944 at the outset of Bukowski’s “ten year drunk”. While we cannot be sure how much of the story is based in the facts of Bukowski’s life, we can be confident that in the broadest strokes, the novel parallels his life.
Hamer’s film version is set in an unspecified time and location, though clearly much later than 1944 and clearly not in Los Angeles (it was filmed in Minneapolis).
Transgressive Art
Factotum, like all of Bukowski’s work, are near perfect exemplar’s of transgressive fiction. In many ways, the common achievement of works of transgressive fiction is to create a discomforting disorientation by having the character the reader sympathizes with violate accepted social norms and act in unsympathetic ways.
Bukowski and Chinowski belong to what sociologists call the Bachelor Subculture. They both violate the accepted values of the domesticated male because they indulge in anti-productive behaviors such as drinking and gambling, are unable to hold jobs and save for the future, and are unfaithful to women and disinterested in raising children. It is the violation of these accepted values that causes some to retreat in revulsion, and others who question these values to see Bukowski as giving voice to their feelings.
Jack of All Trades
Factotum is a person who has many responsiblities, and implies a person with many skills and trusted reliability. It might be most similar to expressions such as “Man Friday” or “Jack of All Trades”. The movie is often referenced as “Factotum (A Man with Many Jobs), which is perhaps accurate but doesn’t capture the spirit of the original definition.
At the end of the movie Dillon summarizes Chinoski’s transgressive outlook on his life. We provide a link to this audio below: