“Factotum” is one of those films I stop to watch whenever I stumble across it on cable; like rubbernecking a grisly roadside wreck. I’m a huge fan of Matt Dillon, who plays Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, with a dead-on, "i've survived it all" calm. The film, an adaption of Bukowski’s autobiographical novel of the same name, takes us along on the seemingly endless existentialist bender the makes up Chinaski’s down and out life.
Bukowski wrote the “Factotum” in the mid-1950s, and set it in post-war Los Angeles. The film transports the story to present day Minneapolis. The run-down inner city locales provide moody atmospherics when Chinaski isn’t inside a dead-end bar or rooming house. The time he spends employed almost seems negligible. There isn’t much a plot, instead, it’s a random string of pasted-together snapshots of his life.
The dictionary definition of factotum is two-edged: “a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities” is the primary meaning. The second, less common usage, is “a general servant.” I love Bukowski’s ironic use of that perfect term for the title. According to Chinaski’s view of himself, the less common, “general servant” sums up his world view of employment.
What plot there is consists of Chinaski’s string of short-lived jobs. Again, the job selection is hilarious, with the film opening as Chinaski jack-hammers huge blocks of ice into smaller, more manageable ice cubes! He lost the job in short order when, sent to deliver ice to a neighborhood bar, he can’t be bothered to make sure the door to the ice truck is closed. The supervisor finds him in drinking at the bar - and the ice melted outside.
Incredibly, Chinaski finds work at a pickle factory. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the job “interview.” It came out, during that quasi-surreal give and take, that Chinaski is a writer. He’s asked what the novel is about. “Everything,” he says. “Is it about cancer?” follows up the interviewer. “Yep.” “Is it about my wife?” The supervisor continued on that absurd line. “Yeah, she’s in there too.” Dead panned Chinanski.
After Chinaski is hired he finds himself sorting pickles on a conveyor belt. Then he’s invited back to the supervisor’s office to meet another employee/writer. The absolute, cigarette smoke filled silence in the office was broken only after Chinaski asks, "can i leave now?" These stilted, almost suffocating, scenes set the dismal, downbeat tone for Chinaski’s dead-end jobs.
In between the jobs, we see Chinaski with this fellow alcoholics - at first Jan (Lili Taylor) and then, briefly, Laura (Marisa Tomei). He ultimately returns to Jan, only to leave her again - finding himself, literally, out on the street. But after each job, relationship, day in the life, Chinaski survives - and ultimately finds redemption when one of his short stories is finally accepted for publication! I doubt it was intended as a sentimental ending. Although Bukowski toiled in those same dead end jobs until he was 50 - before his work was published!
“Factotum” is a great, atmospheric film. If you’re a fan of Matt Dillon, it’s a must watch. If you’re a fan of “Drugstore Cowboy” this is essential viewing. It picks up Dillon 16 years later and, now, instead of drugs - his life is consumed by drink. In fact, the two films would make a great double feature.