Factotum with Matt Dillon in the lead, like 1987’s Barfly with Mickey Rourke in the lead, is an adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s short stories and novels about an alcoholic struggling writer living amongst skid row type establishments and denizens. Rourke and Dillon both portray Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical alter ego in multiple of his works.
It has been a very long time since I saw Barfly, but my minimal memory of it is that it is an above average movie, and that it’s most striking feature–whether this is a reason to like it, dislike it, or neither–is its gritty, grimy intensity and sadness. Just unstable, unpleasant, violent drunk people with wasted lives.
That’s what I was expecting Factotum to be as well, and at times it feels like that’s what the movie’s trying to deliver, but if so it fails. It just never has much intensity to it. I was ready to feel pity or anger or sociological curiosity or something, but somehow I never felt a whole lot of anything. I don’t know that I would say I was bored per se–certainly I’ve seen plenty of films where my mind wandered more and it was more of a chore to see them through to the end–but something about the “feel” of this just isn’t right.
Dillon as Chinaski certainly kept my attention, but more because I wanted to figure him out, wanted to care about him, wanted to find him interesting, than because he turned out to be all that interesting once I could step back and see the movie as a whole.
Chinaski’s essence is to be disengaged from life, to float along in an alcoholic haze, observing, interacting minimally on his own terms with other people. He digests his experiences enough to use them for aphorisms in his writing, but I’m not convinced he has any particularly deep emotions nor that his observations are half as profound as he thinks they are.
He doesn’t even strike me as particularly passionate about his writing.
He easily attracts women, maybe because he has the same “I can take you or leave you” attitude toward them as he has toward life.
He works a series of working class jobs, generally lasting somewhere around a day or a week at each one. He makes virtually no effort to conceal his contempt for each job, and each employer. His remarks of disgust occasionally take on a more politicized air, as he laments having to sell his labor to these exploiters in order to survive.
I have mixed feelings about that. I’ve felt more than my share of just that kind of resentment about conventional employment in a capitalist system. Having to look for a job like that, having to try to keep a job like that, brings me face to face with certain aspects of political and economic reality that I despise, even if I can’t always articulate exactly what provokes my ire and indignation about them.
On the other hand, I also have this uneasy perfectionism and work ethic even relative to work like that. I want to do the best I can and fulfill my obligations even if the situation or the other party doesn’t deserve it, at least until I can move on to something better. It’s like I don’t want the negativity of the situation to drag my behavior down to that same level.
Now, does that mean I’m just that much bigger a sucker? I can actually see the ugliness and exploitation and yet I actively cooperate with it? Or is it a principled moral stand of not returning evil for evil?
So I hate those situations, and I probably do sometimes do things I shouldn’t because I can rationalize them in terms of my not being treated right, but my rule of thumb is that I try to be an honorable person giving an honest day’s work whether I’m being treated honorably and getting an honest day’s pay or not.
Watching Chinaski is like watching half of myself. There’s plenty of the indignation and resentment about the way labor is treated, but there’s pretty much zero of the commitment to try to rise above that and still be the kind of worker one should be if this were a system where people treated each other justly. So I can kind of admire or empathize with his rebelliousness and his being such a bad employee, but kind of not.
My impression is that he’s really not of this skid row world, that he’s “slumming” as a writer, feeling above it all because he knows that he’s there by choice, that he has greater intellect and potential, that he has some noble writer’s essence. It’s like he can escape into the sardonic world of his mind and his latest tome if he feels any risk that he’ll actually start caring about anything in his life.
I find that more persuasive than the interpretation that, say, he’s trapped in this world due to alcoholism and his own emotional shortcomings. He just never seems all that out of control of his own life to me.
But I don’t know that I could really defend that. Maybe it’s more the early impression I had that I then tried to make everything after that fit. Maybe that’s not a very accurate description of him and his life and his attitudes at all.
But I feel like I can’t do much more than take an educated guess or go with a gut level impression, because in so many ways the character is a zero. You have to fill in the blanks yourself because he’s almost all blanks.
The occasions when he shows a violent streak seem out of tune to me, and so I want to interpret them that same way. In one instance, he follows one of his temporary girlfriends into a bar and smacks her in the face, and in another he lets the same woman egg him on to prove his machismo to her by getting into a fistfight with a guy over a trivial verbal altercation.
In neither case did I sense anything genuine about the violence. So my spin on it is that he’s aware this lowlife woman is engaged in sick games where she is turned on by observing violence from her man, including if she’s on the receiving end, and he’s self-consciously playing along to amuse himself and to directly experience what it’s like to behave like “these people” so he’ll better be able to write about them.
It just doesn’t feel like he’s genuinely a violent drunk who hits women to assert his masculinity. To me he comes across more like a pathetic middle class graduate student playacting that he’s that kind of tough guy for some obscure intellectual or ironic reasons.
But again, I may be miles off. Maybe the character really is supposed to be a violent, out of control drunk who gets off on hitting women. I just have trouble buying that he feels anything deeply, including whatever intense rage or frustration or whatever would naturally manifest itself in punching your girlfriend in the face.
Lili Taylor is as good as any character in the movie as Chinaski’s main romantic interest. She’s solid in the role of a screwed up lowlife drunk (though even here I’ll say there’s something about this movie and its characters that never has the intensity of squalor and hopelessness that it should).
I wonder if she’s maybe a little more what Chinaski is supposed to be. She is of that world, she is pathetic, she is messed up, she is to some extent trapped, yet with flickerings of brains, compassion and the ability to connect with another human being, and self-awareness. (Key word being flickerings.) I didn’t get that same sense she’s playacting at this lifestyle.
A minor example of how the movie doesn’t hang together all that well is its use of the tired Movie Land cliche of having the main character be unrealistically adept at picking winners at the track. After all, he’s male, he’s cool in that arrogant smoking/drinking/screwing sweaty low class kind of way, he’s a natural for bars and racetracks and wherever lowlife losers hang out–so of course he’s going to have a way with the horses, right?
Not that he seems to put any work into it. I don’t see him crunching a lot of numbers and coming up with a plausible system for beating the huge track edge. No, it’s Movie Land, so he just has a knack for picking winners because that’s the kind of character he is.
But then it’s as if the fact that he’s a handicapping savant is forgotten. It serves its purpose for some short sequence in the movie where it’s relevant, and then we move on.
Except if he can win at the track like that, wouldn’t that be a bigger part of his life? Wouldn’t he be inclined to explore that as a ticket out of these dead end jobs that he hates?
The fact that I find a lot to write about concerning this movie (only a fraction of which I’ve put down here) maybe says something, though I’m not sure what. That I liked this movie or found it more interesting than I realize? That I tried harder than usual to like this movie and find it interesting, didn’t do so, and am now unusually curious as to why? That I’m puzzled how material that seems like it should hit hard emotionally can instead give rise to a shrug from me?
I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rate this movie as below average, but it does seem to have made an impression on me.