general reviews


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-down 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.

general reviews

Bukowski bios, Vinyl Junkies, Cyborg

I’ve been trying to read a little more lately; I don’t have that long train commute anymore, which is where I got most of my reading done. But I’ve been sick, it’s getting cold outside, and I’ve almost completely given up on TV lately, so I’m starting to get in the swing of things a bit.

First of all, I read the Barry Miles bio on Bukowski, simply called Charles Bukowski. I didn’t entirely like it. I don’t know if this is supposed to be the “official” bio, but it’s advertised as being one of those “total access with the family and friends” sort of books, and it’s anything but. To be fair, pretty much everyone who was friends or lovers with Bukowski for more than ten minutes has put out a book, and most of those are fairly bad. They suffer from the problem where the person only knew one facet of the guy, and they missed most of the story. Then you have the problem where the “official” bio is only going to mention the family’s opinions, thereby not giving the real story. (For the best example of this, take a look at Jack Kerouac’s various biographies, which have generated lawsuits, infighting, and a total blanket on all information from his family, who want to forever silence any voices that may paint their little boy as anything but sqeaky-clean and wholesome, which he totally wasn’t.)

In my opinion, the best Bukowski bio out there is Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes. The Miles book pretty much just tells the story of Bukowski’s life from his books, with very brief corrections and asides, but not a lot of research or dissent. If you’ve read all of the Bukowski books, you already know 90% of what is in the Miles book. But Sounes did a hell of a lot of research to find out where Bukowski lived, who he dated, where he worked, and how everything from his finances to his distant relatives fit into the picture. The Miles book has absolutely no photos; the Sounes book has photos of Bukowski that I’ve never seen before. And since the myth and the man are more different than you think, the Sounes book contains a lot more “I never knew that” moments, and made it enjoyable. The Miles book is nothing more than a recap.

The other book I finished recently was Vinyl Junkies by Brett Milano. This was a pretty light book (about 240 pages in paperback) that talked about the neuroses of people who totally get locked into a collection habit, specifically the accumulation of those pieces of stamped vinyl that people used for music replication back in the days before the CD. He talks to a lot of people who are habitual in the vinyl way, from R. Crumb to Thurston Moore, and he covers not only the general collector of yesteryear’s hits, but people who are really freaked out in their specific collections, like a lesbian that only collects Olivia Newton John, and one of the most ultimate Monkees collectors ever.

Milano talks about actual physiological and psychological reasons behind collection, which make sense, like that collectors might have a serotonin deficiency that causes them to collect in order to feel happy, which they never will. Given my recent diatribe about Stuff, that hits the mark. I am guessing this might also cover people like the crazy eBay mom (you really need to look at that link) [2020 stealth edit: long dead link, I pointed to wayback…] and people who have a thousand cats in their house. You could argue that simply trying to collect every single version of every single Elvis record ever pressed is a little less extreme, but there are some fairly fucked up stories in the book. I think if I paid $4000 for a single, no matter how rare or weird it might be, I’d probably get some kind of serotonin tap added to my water supply, and maybe add a pound of it to every meal from then on.

A lot of the book talked about people always coming back to vinyl, the harshness of the CD, the tactile feel of a record, the look of the jackets, and so on. I guess. I did grow up in the record generation, as I was born about ten years before the CD player, and the first cassette tape system in my parents’ house was the one I got for my 11th (I think) christmas. I have many fond memories of listening to the Haunted Mansion record on our orange box-type phono player, and all of my parents’ crappy record collection, from Billy Joel to Styx, all got burned into my head by the time I entered junior high. And even with tapes being my primary medium all through high school (the walkman made that a requirement; you can’t walk to school carrying a portable turntable) I got on this kick where I bought all of my old Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister albums on vinyl, so I could keep them as a backup and make my own dub tapes, something I did until CDs became completely ubiquitous a few years later. So I never got into vinyl that much, and I’ve always preferred the ease of use with CDs. Maybe if I was a few years older, though, I would have totally been hypnotized by the format, and I would have spent all weekend hauling 200,000 pounds of oil-based platters from Queens to Manhattan.

Last night I started reading the book Cyborg, which is the pulp scifi novel that The Six-Million Dollar Man was later based on. It was completely out of print, and I found it on Amazon for like a buck fifty or something. It’s a fairly horrible little book, but I enjoy it. I think I read half of it in like an hour last night. I also recently found the book The Boys from Brazil, by Ira Levin. It was a weird little alternate-history ditty about Josef Mengele still alive in Brazil, creating a giant project to start up the whole master race thing again. They made a so-so movie of it, but the book was also out of print and hard to find. What’s weird is that Mengele really was still alive in South America when the book came out, although he had no master plan other than to sit on the beach and wait out his time until he eventually died. Anyway, I find it interesting that these books, which are both classics, are out of print, and it’s not like they came out 400 years ago or something. I’m glad Amazon lets me buy up other people’s garbage, though…