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Other Resources:

Anthony Lane, Borderlines (The New Yorker, August 28)

Ann Hornaday, 'Factotum' and 'Half Nelson': Reading Between the Lines of Literary Lives (Washington Post, August 25)

Manohla Dargis, On the Barstool Again, With One for His Muse, in ‘Factotum’ (New York Times, August 18)
After the sad but inevitable demise of the Biograph and Key theaters in Georgetown, Washingtonians were largely bereft of independent and foreign films until Landmark opened its E Street Cinema two years ago. One of the movies that opened there last night is Norwegian director Bent Hamer's first American film, Factotum. The screenplay, by Hamer and Jim Stark, is based on the book of the same title, the 1975 sort-of autobiography by Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles poet often included with the Beats, some say wrongly. His alter ego, Henry (Hank) Chinaski, last appeared on the screen in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987), with Mickey Rourke in the title role. Before that, it was a much grittier movie, Marco Ferreri's Storie di ordinaria follia (1981), that put Ben Gazzara in a gutsy performance as a Bukowski stand-in probably the closest to the real thing.

Marisa Tomei and Matt Dillon, Factotum, directed by Bent HamerBukowski himself, who died in 1994, adapted his own book for Barfly and even had a cameo appearance sitting at the bar. My overwhelming feeling while watching Factotum was that the story of Bukowski's life comes off this time as hagiography. I am not a big fan of Bukowski, a man whose prolific production is remarkable, but I often have the feeling when reading his work that he could have used a merciless editor. People who love him appreciate that rawness, but I prefer my literature a little more filtered. Bukowski's literary voice, that rambling, foul-mouthed vomit of words, is mostly edited out of Factotum. We hear one poem in voiceover ("A poem is a city"), and it is read in a truncated form. Matt Dillon's calm, slow-moving Chinaski loses a series of meaningless jobs, drinks and smokes but not to grotesque excess, and hooks up with a couple different women. Waking up on a bench one morning seems to mark his low point. It is an achievement to have made a life like Bukowski's seem this dull and colorless. The city extolled in that voiceover poem as "filled with streets and sewers / filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen, / filled with banality and booze" is not even Bukowski's Los Angeles: the film was shot in Minneapolis, as eerily empty of people as a de Chirico painting.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the life dissected here, that the glamor of literary poverty is a fallacy. Chinaski spends a lot of time sitting at the bar, telling lies to prospective employers and girlfriends, scribbling short stories on a legal pad, and dropping envelopes in mailboxes. This may be a realistic description of much of Bukowsi's life, but it does not make for a particularly gripping cinematic experience. Hamer does capture the desperation of a couple, Jan and Chinaski, who are perfectly matched for one another but grow to loathe one another's company. The couple who drinks together, sleeps together, and even throws up together after a bad binge (in the movie's funniest scene) cannot always live together.

In spite of the screenplay's weaknesses, Hamer draws strong performances from his cast. Matt Dillon, husky and red-faced, plays the role for all the intensity and humor he can get. Lili Taylor, who is still at the top of every independent film director's speed dial, is courageous and infuriating as Jan, Bukowski's drunken, slutty muse. Far more interesting but on the screen for much less time is Marisa Tomei -- whose mainstream career tanked around the time she turned 40 -- as the other woman, Laura. Tomei, all legs, mascara-heavy eyes, and drunken semi-oblivion, gave work of the strength she showed last in Unhook the Stars. Continuing our tour of our favorite independent film actresses, there is a too-brief appearance from Adrienne Shelly, discovered in the 1990s by Hal Hartley in two of his best early films, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth. I guess Parker Posey just didn't return Bent Hamer's calls. Factotum is worth watching for these performances, but it may not be for everyone.

Factotum is showing only at E Street Cinema. Worthwhile but not essential.

Also opening this week at E Street is 13 (Tzameti), Géla Babluani's thriller that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year (through August 31).

At the American Film Institute this week in Silver Spring are the latest offerings in the David Lynch retrospective (The Straight Story), the disturbing films of Michael Haneke (Funny Games and Benny's Video), and the International Documentary Challenge (IDC) Screening on August 31.

Museums are also screening some rare films. This week at the National Gallery of Art, the final two movies in the From Vault to Screen series, On the Bowery and Rapt. Next weekend, high on our list of Labor Day activities, a rare screening of Lucchino Visconti's masterpiece Death in Venice (September 2 and 4). All movies at the NGA are free.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a review of experimental film and video from African-American women (August 29) and a screening of Cheryl Dunye's Stranger Inside, about a woman searching for her incarcerated mother. Movies at NMWA cost $5 (students, $4).


Reel Fanatic said...

I left D.C. a long time ago (after graduating from Catholic U) and had not heard that the Biograph had closed .. that's so sad! ... I just used to love going there for their quirky little movie fests .. Factotum looks fascinating, but in my little corner of the world, I now have to wait for DVD to see such provocative fare

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, the Biograph is now a CVS, and the Key is a Restoration Hardware. It's hard to believe that the city allowed people to watch movies in those theaters, they were so run down. But they had charm, didn't they?

Garth Trinkl said...

... and the former larger Circle Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue is now the Michael Graves and Vlastimil Koubek World Bank Group Internationl Finance Corporation building, which opened almost ten years ago. ... I did notice that the World Bank IFC was opening some sort of 'globalist' craft shop and coffee bar on the otherwise now imposing and barricaded former movie house site.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth: good one! I should have known that you would come up with something I forgot. I have heard that there are plans for another independent theater here on Capitol Hill. That's developing news...