November 6, 2006

Cornell Cinema

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Factotum is based on the 1974 novel of the same name, by Charles Bukowski — the Los Angeles poet and novelist. I don’t know anything about Bukowski, but from the script of the film and its general tone, I imagine you could classify him as a member of the beat generation — at least he shares that same loose, rough-edged, life-as-an-odyssey style.

I imagine Mr. Bukowski didn’t often use more than simple sentences in his writing, as if the world could only be perceived by smashing it and collecting the fragments one by one. All I know is that Factotum will treat you to such drunken rubies of worn wisdom as these: “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.” Right.

That being said, Factotum is well-made. Matt Dillon stars as Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s literary alter-ego), a permanently down-and-out writer trying to find job, booze and women in the dirty districts of Los Angeles. He shuffles his feet from one dead-end job to the next: an ice-shipping factory; a taxi agency; a pickle factory (count off 1,2,3, separate); a bike repair shop; a brake factory. No matter to him — he’ll arrive in his drunken reverie, pass the time that has no meaning for him, collect his paycheck and get drunk.

“And then I met Jan,” Chinaski narrates. Jan, played by Lili Taylor, is a terribly perfect match for Chinaski — she too is an alcoholic, she too can’t breath air without smoke, and she too can’t hold down a job. They eat pancakes for dinner (“No butter.”) and wash them down with cheap wine. Jan needs to have sex four times a day. Chinaski will get up in the morning, throw up and grab a beer, and Jan will be right on his heels. A match made in hell.

Chinaski and Jan break off several times, but they seem to keep finding each other. During one of their hiatuses, Chinaski meets Laura (Marisa Tomei) at a bar, and he spends the last few dollars he owns to buy her a drink. Luckily for him, Laura happens to be one of the many concubines of an old, rich French man named Pierre (Didier Flamand). “I like you,” Pierre tells Chinaski. “You seem to have class.” Pierre takes them all out on his yacht and provides them with booze and cigarettes, but, alas, croaks not too longer after Chinaski meets him. After being rejected from his parents’ house, he moves back in with Jan. The cycle repeats, Jan leaves once more, and the movie ends with Chinaski sitting in a strip bar, musing on the fury of life.

The performances are great, specifically those of Dillon and Taylor. Dillon brings a great physical presence to the role, with his permanent 5 o’clock shadow and gravelly voice, and he nails the rugged insouciance of the character. He seems to be channeling Michael Madsen, and, indeed, I often imagined Madsen in the role. There’s a lot more going on in the mind of Chinaski than his grunts and beer-stained shirt would have you believe.
Taylor is equally spellbinding as Chinaski’s Bonnie. She likes her men when they’re down and out, and as Chinaski says, the dirtier, the better. She’s the type of girl who can find happiness in her slovenly world, precisely because she doesn’t much worry about what lies beyond the pale of her next Marlboro.

Still, Factotum is not a pleasant film to watch. It is suffocating, and there is little to lift up the viewer, unless you buy into the shattered-glass worldview of Chinaski, in which case it’s impossible for you to feel uplifted. Chinaski’s relationship with Jan is the crux of the movie, I suppose, although it feels more like a chewed piece of gum holding the x and y axes together.

For some, Chinaski’s musings may be profound. They may find an eternal wisdom in this troubadour of bars and motels. For me, Chinaski is like a used-car salesman rubbing the grease of philosophy onto what is, and always will be, a lemon.