Portraying the figure of Charles Bukowski is a difficult task, largely because he was so good at portraying himself. The cantankerous writer didn't provide much separation between his real life persona and the men in his stories. In fact, anyone who has read both his nonfiction and his fiction know how much the two often cross over. Barbet Schroeder tried to make a film about Bukowski in 1987, even contracting the author to write the screenplay for Barfly. Mickey Rourke played Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's longtime stand-in, and as the writer would freely admit, Rourke just didn't get it. If you've seen Schroeder's documentary The Charles Bukowski Tapes (newly released on DVD and reviewed here), you've seen what I'm talking about.
Norwegian director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) is the newest challenger to take on the task of bringing Bukowski to the screen. Working with the late author's estate, he has made Factotum, an adaptation of the novel of the same name. He and his co-screenwriter Jim Stark have also brought in Bukowski's poetry, using his blank verse as narration for the man's often poetic life. The results are a pretty close replication of the Charles Bukowski reading experience.
Matt Dillon is Factotum's Henry Chinaski, a drunk who wanders from job to job, working just long enough to earn a little cash to buy more booze. He never takes on a new job without understanding exactly what part of himself he is giving up in order to earn a wage, and when he's asked to leave, he's not going to go without telling the boss what he thinks of him. When he's not working or occupying a bar stool, Hank is usually bent over a yellow legal pad writing out the short stories that he dutifully mails off to literary magazines, a skid row Sisyphus trudging up the mountain of letters.
Despite his claims that he needs no one, Hank usually has someone else around. Sometimes it's a man, like the wino with a bottle that gets him thrown out of an employment agency or his gambling partner (Fisher Stevens) who encourages him to duck out of work early and catch the last horse race. Usually, though, Hank is drawn to women, the kind who spend most of their time in bars and like the sauce as much as he does. For a brief while, he goes around with Laura (Marisa Tomei), a woman who is on the prowl and makes no bones about it. Tomei makes an excellent drunk, speaking through heavy lips and measuring her movements. She looks like she could fall down at any second, and yet stays away from too much pantomime. Laura introduces him to Pierre (Didier Flamand), a rich eccentric who also has a fair collection of alcoholic females. The disdain he has for Laura's new friend is obvious, and Hank doesn't much care for Pierre either. It's possible they see each other as competition, or maybe it's that Hank isn't used to bowing to the wealthy and Pierre isn't enamored of people he can't manipulate.
The thing about Henry Chinaski--and, by extension, Charles Bukowski--is that he was constantly faced with a world too self-involved to know he is smarter than it is. He sees through the bullshit and is always one step ahead of the next guy. What makes him fascinating as a character, and what Matt Dillon captures so well, is that he doesn't show this physically. Whether it's the booze or his mind is just too busy with its main thoughts to give much of its energy to the rest of the body, Hank is also one step behind himself. He moves slowly, hunched over, like he can't really be bothered to wake up completely. He speaks in the same manner, ladling out his witticisms carefully. Dillon fully inhabits this mode of behavior. Bodily, he completely becomes a drunken poet.
For as charismatic as Dillon's Hank Chinaski is, however, Factotum is still somewhat of a tough nut to crack. Hamer makes a good go of it, but the hard thing about Bukowski is that his writing is primarily about the drudgery of life. Every day is a struggle, whether it's to find a new way to make a living or a new way to get the drink he's after. As he trolls from one dead-end job to another, from ice factory to pickle packing to janitor, there's a sense that it will always be this way. His new boss will always be a jerk, the task meaningless, and tomorrow is going to be exactly like today. His personal relationships are no different. Both before and after Laura, he ends up with Jan (Lili Taylor), who is on the same track he is. Sometimes she can clean herself up and get a job as a maid or the like, but eventually she'll get bored, want another drink, and cause some trouble.
It's fun to watch for a while, but the problem Hamer can't seem to solve is where to go with it. A triumphant ending would feel like a cop-out, so instead he tries for a bittersweet one. Hank gets a good turn, but he doesn't know it, and so his existential coda about how all a man can do is continue to dive in head first and hope for the best is undermined. Hamer has made Hank Chinaski ironic without making the character aware of it, and it doesn't feel right. That would never happen to Bukowski. He'd figure it out and he'd give a cracked-tooth smile of bemusement as he let's you know he knows. Even if Bukowski did it to Chinaski in his own writing, he'd still be clear about who the joke was really on. Hamer would have been better to just stick with the final day in Factotum merely being like any other. It's not an exciting or even necessarily satisfying end, but it would have felt more true.
Even so, Factotum leaves the audience feeling like they would at the end of one of Bukowski's books. You love the old codger even as you're repulsed by and pity him, and in some weird way, you even wish you could be him. That's both a triumph of the words and of Dillon, who knows to lay it on harder when Chinaski is going in to get his. It's when he lives out that last credo, to try with everything you've got, that he really gets the rest of us on his side. Better to leap into the fray swinging than have the rug pulled out from under you.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.