IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Factotum’ turns a lens on Bukowski’s dark life

Matt Dillon plays legendary author's alter ego as he struggles to write
/ Source: The Associated Press

Charles Bukowski spent most of his time around life’s dark edges. His friends were the drunks he sat with in seedy bars, the broken ladies he tried to romance, the horse players he met at the track and the blue-collar colleagues he worked with at a dozen dead-end jobs.

From 1944 until his death 50 years later, Bukowski explored the humanity of the downtrodden in poetry and prose. He wrote more than 50 books filled with the beauty and sadness of the forgotten people in his broke, booze-soaked, nicotine-stained world.

But bringing the light Bukowski found in his dark life to the screen is no easy task, says Bent Hamer, director of “Factotum,” which hits theaters Friday.

The film is adapted from Bukowski’s 1975 novel of the same name, which follows his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, through the various menial, short-lived jobs he takes while trying to become a writer. Matt Dillon plays Chinaski. Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei play two of his love interests.

One challenge is the lack of dramatic arc in the story, Hamer says. The central character refuses to change.

“That’s the essence of Bukowski,” says Hamer, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Jim Stark. “He has his own view and he’s presenting it generously, but don’t come and try to change that view, which is what the script doctors hate.”

Another potential pitfall is presenting the character as little more than a two-dimensional cliche of drunken debauchery, adds Bukowski’s widow, Linda Bukowski.

“It’s very hard because, as we’ve seen in the past, it can just be turned into a cartoon, an exaggeration,” she says, brushing her long brown bangs out of her eyes. “He has this huge, profound external image that is so potent that it makes people have to dig a little bit into their own souls in order to accept it and let his truth talk to (them).”

She and her late husband “weren’t so happy” with previous film adaptations of his work, she says.

Hamer is the latest in a long line of filmmakers inspired by Bukowski’s writing. Taylor Hackford made a documentary about the author in 1973. “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” based on Bukowski’s collection of short stories carrying the same name, was released in 1981. Bukowski’s own screenplay “Barfly” became a 1987 movie starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. That same year, Belgian filmmaker Dominique Deruddere released “Crazy Love,” based on several of Bukowski’s novels. Another documentary was released in 2004: “Bukowski: Born Into This.”

Take this job and shove it“Factotum” has an added accessibility because it focuses on Chinaski’s unsatisfying work life, something millions of people can relate to, Hamer says.

“There are a lot of people living in this country struggling for everyday life, for having a place to live,” he says. “He did it for real, that makes him like the people in that category.”

So they can relate to Bukowski even if they never took a drink, hit on a floozy or bet on a horse, Hamer says.

Dillon calls the author “a working class hero” who gives voice to the myriad workers who escape from their daily drudgery with a stiff drink.

“Ninety-eight percent of people are not living their dream on their jobs,” Dillon says. “These are the people that fuel his writing. It’s not as if the characters he’s creating are like people who are beneath him. He’s right in the thick of it.”

Still, translating his tenderness to film — without the depth his written words supplied — is tough. Hamer had Dillon read some of Bukowski’s poems as voiceovers to bring them into the mix. He also tried to retain the author’s darkly humorous way of looking at life, Hamer says.

Hamer insists he didn’t try to capture Bukowski’s book on film. Instead, he offers an interpretation of the man and his work.

“I just hope that I’m a part of presenting a view of life which I find very generous and very human,” Hamer says. “It’s the strong smell of human being, even if it has nothing to do with the everyday life people are living. It is something real.”

Linda Bukowski says she hopes the movie illuminates the humanness of her late husband.

“He means to speak to everybody, but everybody isn’t ready,” she says. “We’re afraid to look at our own warts and moles and wrinkles and all of that.”