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Factotum
Until April 26, Fitil 
Directed by: Bent Hamer. Written by: Charles Bukowski (novel), Bent Hamer (screenplay), Jim Stark (screenplay). Starring: Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, Fisher Stevens, Didier Flamand, Adrienne Shelly, Karen Young. USA / Norway: 94 mins.

By Erik Jansma

Review Top Sheet: Wannabe writer Henry Chinaski tries hard to get published. Living on the verge of being a bum makes life interesting in the meantime, if not alcohol and women.

Bukowski’s alter ego Chinaski was featured 18 years ago in a dark, depressing movie called Barfly and Factotum is the much funnier prequel. The movie’s genre is classified as Drama, but don’t worry, you won’t notice it. It’s a wittily made comedy with just a slightly melancholic undertone. Go and see it sober: you’ll see how funny you are when you’re drunk (if that is funny at all).

Will you like this film?

Yes if: You like a drink or two
No if: You like happy endings
Maybe if: You’re still trying to hold on to your New Year’s resolutions in April.

Comments: Movies that feature clinical observation as the main technique tend to get really depressing when dealing with serious issues. Remember “Magnolia”? ‘Nuff said. Now, Factotum deals with alcoholism and not being able to sort out your life, which is sort of dramatic too. You can leave your tissues in your pocket, though, as director Bent Hamer has decided to keep it rather phlegmatic and humorous.

Factotum is classed as a Drama movie, but it is a comedy. At least, to me it is. Even though the tone and story can hardly be called optimistic, the ironic take on the subject and the self-mockery should tell you that this isn’t all too serious. I even refuse to call it a tragic-comedy, as that would make the author of the novel on which the film is based a tragic person. I don’t think thought that of himself, so why should we…

However, if you are looking for a happily-ever-after end that will put a smile on your face, approach this film with caution. Don’t hold your breath for it. Rather spend your breath on all the laughing you can do during the movie and simply enjoy.

Out-of-five star ratings:
Story: ***
Dialogue:*****
Substance:***
FilmCraft:****

Story Comments: This autobiographical story features Henry Chinaski, a writer whose sole goal in life it is to try and get published. His rather heavy drinking habit and generally rather phlegmatic attitude to life in general get him in and out of jobs (and trouble) in the meantime. The story is a sequence of anecdotes that come with this type living. Factotum means as much as “man of so many jobs” –a job-hopper.

As the story telling is observational and doesn’t guide you towards a conclusion or verdict about what is presented. At the end of the story, for instance, you’re not being told who is a winner or looser, but your left to your own devices to draw a conclusion. It’s a style I personally like a lot, but I can imagine that if you like to be presented with a clear view on good, bad, pretty and ugly, you might stay confused. There is enough to laugh about, so it won’t bother you anyway.

What I find powerful about the story is that it becomes very clear at some moments that life as an alcoholic almost-bum, constantly on the verge of small crime, homelessness, welfare and collapse in the end isn’t as interesting as it may seem. And just at the moments that the boredom almost becomes tangible, the script fast-forwards to a new, slightly different era in Chinaski’s life. For those who know about Bukowski or have read the book Factotum (generally regarded as one of his lesser reads), the story is not going to contain any surprises, including the open ending.

Dialogue Comments: Most of the time, the dialogs are just simply hilarious. They are dry, witty, ironic, sharp and very funny. Obviously, the story hardly caters for very deep and philosophical conversations. Instead, most of the dialogs are about drinking, being drunk, breaking up, making up and getting hired and fired. It’s the tone of the dialogs though, that express the sadness of not being capable to sort out your life, which is the case for most of the characters in the movie. They go from ironic to sarcastic to cynical and back, while no-one in the script really complains. Life is a joke, seems to be the general tone.

The voice-over connects one chapter to another and expresses the deeper thoughts of the main character. Doing so, Matt Dillon dryly reads Bukowski quotes like “I decided to clean up the apartment. I thought I must be turning into a fag”. This quote in particular is really funny in light of the scene that follows with Lili Taylor’s character screaming: “You bastard!! Where is she? Where is that B**** who cleaned the apartment?”

In real-life, Bukowski would be the first to mock Bukowski and this relativism is nicely caught in both dialogs and voice-over. The man himself, if he were still alive, would probably be watching the movie with a grin. It’s like he is telling the story himself.

Substance Comments: As the story and dialog comments already imply, the substance of the movie doesn’t go beyond the substance of Bukowski’s work or person. You don’t have to know Bukowski to like or understand the movie, but it surely helps you to appreciate the contents.

If you know a bit about Bukowski you will know that he was basically an alcoholic looser archetype, to put it bluntly. He was not pretty, he was unfaithful, a drunk, a nasty character, and above all an outsider. Widely considered the greatest and most influential American poet of the 20th century, he never became mainstream in the USA, neither did he get much appreciation by the literary society there (while being name-checked by the likes of Sartre in Europe). This must be discouraging to anybody at some point. Instead of complaining and selling out on principles however, Bukowski just stubbornly remained who he was and kept to his own ways. He chose hedonism instead of despair to make his life enjoyable to himself.

In the movie, Chinaski takes the same approach to life, not being bothered too much about what others think of it. At the end he tells us that there is some point to what he is doing: “If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods. And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”

Whether you regard this as an encouragement or a simplistic view by a misfit is up to you. It does, however, seem to capture the phenomenon Bukowski very well.

Filmcraft comments: What do you need more, when you already have a good script and novel to base a movie on? Answer: a director who knows that less can be more, a good cast and good photography.

Bent Hamer has only made a few movies and this is his first “big” one with an international cast, crew and attention. Considering that this may be his international break-through movie, he has done pretty well containing his nerves. At no point, the movie is over-directed or flawing in any other way. There are no “Bent-Hamer-traces” in this film, he doesn’t try to put his fingerprints on the celluloid. Compare this to for instance “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, about literary enfant terrible Hunter S. Thompson, which has “directed by: Terry Gilliam” written all over it. Hamer leaves it up to the script and cast.

And some cast it is: Matt Dillon, not really someone that I rated as a top actor, evidently is comfortable in his role. It’s his first funny and good role after “There’s Something About Mary”. Many say he was miscast for this movie and compare him with the other Chinaski performer, Mickey Rourke. Though Rourke may in many ways be more similar to Bukowski than Dillon, casting him would have made this particular movie and take on the story too dark. Dillon fits the role well. He brilliantly carries a slightly worried, slightly bored and apologetic face that fits his lines, while Lili Taylor is playing her part of someone probably even more a boozer than Chinaski with incredible credibility. A nice surprise is the relatively short performance by Marisa Tomei, who plays her role of a heavily sponsored (and heavily drinking) floozy with as much flair as a role like that can get.

Thumbs up to the make-up department: if you’re living in Moscow, you’ve seen drunks all over and know how they look. Realistically, Chinaski has the slightly puffed face of an alcoholic with spots all over the upper part of the cheeks. He looks ready to hit the gutter at Kurski Voksal and hang with the bums. You just can’t smell him yet, which is probably for the better.

The photography is subtle and modest. The camera positions are mostly stable, which is preferred over handy-cam in this type of flick. The lighting is moody but not gloomy and I like the way that the shots have been kept not too short.

This movie was obviously made with pleasure and it shows.

A taste of the story: “All I want to do is get my check and get drunk.”

12.04.06
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