The generally accepted rationale for/dismissal of Charles Bukowski’s appeal is that his unstemmed nosebleed of an oeuvre — semi-autobiographical anecdotes of drinks drunk, ponies played, and whores haggled with — constitutes a romantic ideal of the dropout’s life for readers either too timid or well-adjusted to drop out themselves. “A teen-age boy’s fantasy of adulthood,” as last year’s New Yorker takedown (by Adam Kirsch) would have it. And, as a former member of a cadre of high schoolers who devoured Bukowski in between U.S. History I and Mock Trial practice, I can attest to the vicarious enthrallment of the blackouts, roominghouses, and hand-to-mouth living. (A digression: perhaps hip-hop’s ever-metastasizing popularity among white, middle-class, suburban adolescents is attributable to its status as an alternative existence easily aped via the acquisition of material goods?) But — perhaps only to avoid the embarrassment of renouncing an old favorite — I submit that there is a there there: that the unguarded, occasionally inarticulate ebb and flow of his poetry and (especially) prose is clouded with vague self-knowledge, booze belches not entirely drowning out the sound of quiet desperation.
Not that you’d know it from the movies he’s inspired: the religiously charged unsafe sex of Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness and Barbet Schroeder’s slurry myth-stroke Barfly (from Bukowski’s screenplay) face-value his Beautiful Loser pronouncements, and hiss hot air. And now comes Factotum, based on authorial stand-in Henry Chinaski’s accounts of outsider fictions rejected and menial jobs lost to self-sabotaging apathy in Bukowski’s loose-hanging, shit-stained second novel. With slicked-back hair and acne scars accenting his ever-so-slightly Cro-Magnon features, Matt Dillon’s a ringer for Bukowski (sorry — “Chinaski”), but his readings — and Lili Taylor’s, as his fellow wino/codependent live-in fuckbuddy — of the straight-from-the-book dialogue have the heavy, measured timing of, if not outright sobriety, then at least nobility. Bukowski’s most triumphalist poems are declaimed as gruff voice-overs: in the final scene, Chinaski sits in a strip club intoning something about “going all the way.” (The book ends in a strip club, too; its final line is “And I couldn’t get it up.”)
Often, though, Norwegian director Bent Hamer dares undercut the bloviation with a bit of quiet absurdity, scattering dry morsels of the melancholy usually glossed over by acolytes. It’s just that Hamer (he of the tidy Kitchen Stories) is temperamentally unsuited to vulgarity, ebullience, despondency — all the stuff staining the material too deep to wash out. Wry music and gentle set-up/punch editing replace zipless fucks and digressions on ass-wiping; location by location, Factotum is the most sanitary vision of skid row in recent memory, a place where hangovers are vomited off in the out-of-focus background, where even Chinaski’s bout with crabs stays on the level of safe irony. Wistful deadpan’s a more clearheaded reading than Bukowski usually gets, sure, but what’s the benefit if he’s so watered down you can’t taste the kick? Opens August 18