I saw the movie Factotum last night. It’s a new rendition of the old Charles Bukowski book of the same name, starring Matt Dillon as Chinaski, Lili Taylor as Jan, and Marisa Tomei as one of the other women. I thought the movie was kind of okay. There were things I really liked, but I disliked the adaptation overall.
First of all, this is one of the better Bukowski books, in my opinion. It chronicles his years of living in LA back after WW2, bouncing from job to job, bar to bar, woman to woman. It’s a very gritty book, very descriptive of an LA we don’t see in the bright Hollywood movies: the slums, the cold-water apartments, the grimy factories, the desolate skid rows. It’s very well written, and reads fast, like his earlier Post Office, but maybe not as purposely humorous. Either way, it’s one of those books like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London that makes you really appreciate how hard it is to be poor sometimes. And that’s something I really tried to do in my first book, Summer Rain. I end up re-reading this book maybe once every other year or so, just like the other Bukowski classics.
The film… First of all, they decided to make the movie present-day. They also decided to shoot in Minnesota, probably because it costs so damn much to film in LA. But they did a pretty good job of dummying that up to resemble the old-time LA. There were run-down flophouses, beat-up factories, dingy bars, old strip clubs, and grimy streets. Everyone dressed in old clothes, and everything looked like it was 1949, except for the occasional PT Cruiser or digital watch. I could live with that though. It wasn’t a period piece, but it did try to put me back into the book. And for being shot in Minnesota, it looked a hell of a lot like LA.
As for the cast, they did good on casting. Matt Dillon might not look like an obvious choice for the Chinaski/Bukowski lead. He kind of has the hair and beard, and his build is close, albeit a bit skinny. His eyes resemble his, but the striking thing is that his jawline, the way he doesn’t entirely open his mouth when he talks, is incredibly like the real Bukowski. In the end, any Matt Dillon role is just Matt Dillon talking, and you need to suspend that to see the character. But the way he drank, smoked, walked, and talked was very much like Bukowski. Everyone is making the obvious comparison between Dillon and Mickey Rourke in the previous movie Barfly. Bukowski hated Rourke’s performance, and I’m with him on that. He was too much of a pretty-boy, and the sniveling way he talked just didn’t cut it for me. Dillon may not be perfect, but he was pretty damn good.
Lili Taylor played the part of Jan, one of Bukowski’s longest relationships in real life. She was absolutely spot-on perfect. She looked like hell, but that’s what was intended. Her mannerisms, the way she fought and drank and lived, were exactly how I pictured the real Jan when I read Bukowski’s depictions of her. And Marisa Tomei made a convincing beat-up drunk, too. She looked pretty horrible in the film, as intended.
What threw me though, was that the entire plot was just fucked. The original book probably isn’t the best thing for a film, because there is a lot of repetition in bouncing from job to job, and that had to be greatly consolidated. The original also had a lot of inner monologue, thoughts about the world and how it was horrible, and you can’t show that as much as you can write about it. Taking anything first-person and moving it to the mostly third-person medium of film usually kills all of that, or leaves it to voiceovers, which are largely pathetic. You never get the sense why Chinaski lived like he lived. It’s hinted at, with the visit to his dad’s house, the bars, the attempts at writing and sending out his stories, but it never stacks up like the book. And the other thing is, there was so much great stuff in the book, and it looks like they just cut and pasted out some of the little bits of story, and then glued it all together end-to-end without any attempt at making the plot flow or move. The movie was entirely fucked in this regard. If you weren’t a Bukowski fan, you would die of boredom after ten minutes. And if you were, you’d be upset that they didn’t do more with the book.
So, yeah, don’t rush to the theater unless you already own all 60-something of Bukowski’s books and you feel an obligation. Or if you want to see an incredibly dumpy Marisa Tomei topless for like two seconds.
The other day in the book store, I saw a movie tie-in version of the book, with a Matt Dillon glossy on the cover, and pretty much heaved. Man, Bukowski’s widow must be itching to buy a new Benz or something. It’s also funny considering how different the book and the movie are. I still have the old Black Sparrow printing of that book, and of pretty much all of his books. All of them are pre-Random House, and most are pre-Bukowski’s death, so they have different bios in the back, and they all have that matte paper finish on them, instead of slick glossies. I remembered last night that when I first moved to Seattle, and worked in Pioneer Square, I got my first paycheck and ran around the corner to Elliott Bay Books and bought every single Bukowski book they had that I didn’t, maybe a dozen and a half of them, almost too many to carry at once. That’s why all of the versions match.
Anyway, nothing going on today – cold, rainy, and unmotivating. Maybe I will try to clean my desk or something. Or re-read Factotum.