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DVD Pick: Factotum

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Factotum DVD Cover Art

Factotum DVD Cover Art

© IFC Films

A Gritty, yet Upbeat, Film Based on Bukowski's Novel

One of the most unusual English-language movies of recent years, Factotum (2005) avoids Hollywood and Sundance clichés. This low-keyed, wry character study not only made me laugh out loud, it moved me. In the movie, Norwegian-born filmmaker Bent Hamer captures the spirit of American poet, novelist and counterculture figure Charles Bukowski (1920-1994). And Matt Dillon, Oscar-nominated for his role as the racist cop in Crash, gives a splendid performance as Factotum's central character.

As a young adult, Bukowski lived in poverty while struggling to get started as a writer. He supported himself by taking low-paying odd jobs, but his chronic drinking would always cause him to get fired. However, despite the drinking, he churned out a steady stream of short stories. Eventually, Bukowski's experiences during that time period supplied the raw material for his 1975 semiautobiographical novel Factotum. The title is a noun meaning "a person employed to do a wide variety of jobs."

Actors Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei

Bukowski called his fictional alter ego Henry "Hank" Chinaski in all his novels, including Factotum. In the film, Matt Dillon plays Chinaski in a way that the actor's facial expressions, body movements and line deliveries recall old footage of Bukowski, and the result is an unforgettable movie character.

Although writing and drinking take priority over everything else for Chinaski, he nonetheless enjoys having women in his life. Much of the film centers around his relationship with a low-class girlfriend named Jan, well played by Lili Taylor of TV's Six Feet Under. For about 13 minutes in the middle of the movie, Chinaski is romantically involved with a woman named Laura, portrayed by Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for her performance in My Cousin Vinny.

Film Is Faithful to Novel in Spirit, but There Are Differences

Bukowski's writing goes over well in northern Europe, so perhaps it's no surprise that the film's cowriter/director Bent Hamer, a Norwegian, has the right sensibility to adapt the American author's work to the screen. But Hamer does make some changes that alter the feel of the story. Bukowski was a Los Angeles resident writing about events in his own life, and the novel Factotum is firmly set in the 1940s and takes place mostly in L.A. However, the setting for the movie is bit vague, although apparently it's supposed to be a generic American city circa the early 21st century. Actually, the film was shot in and around Minneapolis, and the locale can occasionally be identified by things like telephone area codes.

But Hamer wisely paid attention to the spoken word in his movie, bringing in not only lines from the novel Factotum, but also material from Bukowski's 1990s journals, collected in the book The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship. In addition, some lines were drawn from Bukowski's poetry, for example, the Matt Dillon voice-over of "A Poem Is a City," which is found in the book The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills.

An Evocative Musical Score

Bukowski was famous for listening to classical music, but only a couple of the classics are heard on Factotum's soundtrack. Instead, the filmmakers chose a musical score done by Norwegian singer/songwriter Kristen Asbjørnsen. But her music is fitting in that it gives the feeling of life on the edge, and the words for two of her songs—"I Wish to Weep" and "Slow Day"—are taken from Bukowski poems found in his book What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.

DVD Review Continues on the Next Page - A Featurette on Filmmaker Bent Hamer and DVD Details

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