Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Down And Down And Down And Out

A friend of mine sent me a copy of the latest screen adaptation of a Charles Bukowski book. Factotum, based on Bukowski’s second novel, features Matt Dillon in the pivotal Henry Chinaski role this time and, surprise, he isn’t half bad. But he, like much about the film, is spotty: there are moments when he nails the thing dead-on and you imagine that this must be exactly what it would have been like to know the young Bukowski. He lets a slyness into his voice that isn’t as over the top as Mickey Rourke’s in Barfly and, for a minute, you believe it.

But these moments are sporadic. Mostly, it’s the usual drinking and pensive scribbling in a notebook which, along with an omnipresent voiceover, doesn’t do the film any favors.

If it’s flat, it’s because it doesn’t seem to have much of a point to it. We don’t really care enough about this Chinaski to want to see what happens to him, and there’s a lack of humor that’s deadly when you’re dealing with this kind of subject matter. Bukowski’s saving grace has always been a sense of humor and an empathy for his fellow man disguised as misanthropy. Which is why you still have to give the crown to Rourke, who brought a sly sense of humor to his Chinaski and created a character you had an emotional interest in.

Of course, Barfly had the advantage of an original screenplay by Bukowski and a director, Barbet Schroeder, who understood his work. Interestingly, Factotum crosses over with Barfly in some scenes, only this time with Marisa Tomei playing the character originally portrayed by Faye Dunaway.

Not sure when this one’s expected in theaters, but it looks more like a rental to me.

Barry Miles, who’s made a career out of writing bios of the Beats, finally ran out of beatniks after having essayed the lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. So he now presents us with his version of Bukowski’s life, simply titled Charles Bukowski (Virgin Books).

My first question upon seeing it was, do we really need this after the excellent Howard Sounes bio of Buk (Locked In The Arms Of A Crazy Life)? Isn’t this pretty much a naked cash grab? But as much as I was predisposed not to like it, I have to admit that Miles does a nice job here and profitably spends a little more time than most talking about the writing, which I appreciated. And there are some original observations scattered throughout.

The irony is that, as Miles acknowledges, Bukowski had little use for the Beats and resented being lumped in with them. He found the whole scene a little too clubby for his taste and, although he had to admit to Ginsberg’s talent and influence, he believed that Kerouac was a terrible writer, almost as bad as the American writer he condemned most fiercely, Thomas Wolfe (seems to me it would be difficult to like one of them and hate the other).

Just released on DVD, Mike Leigh’s Naked is a film for people who find Bukowski to be too cheery and optimistic.

Leigh’s 1993 film stars David Thewlis as Johnny, a down-and-out autodidact drifter whose eclectic knowledge and speedy monologues are only good for insulting and hurting people. Suffering from a long-buried incident in his past, Johnny’s obvious intelligence has curdled into crackpot theories and left him a shell of a person who no longer feels anything for anyone except himself. If you’ve never seen it, be prepared to be completely overwhelmed by Thewlis’s performance, in more ways than one. Not only is it a remarkable performance, but it fills the film to bursting – there’s barely room in it for anyone else to breathe. He fills any possible silences and gaps with a nonstop torrent of misguided speech.

As we watch Johnny use and abuse friends and strangers alike during the course of an evening, we realize that the only purpose he has left is to ruin the world. Any help or kindness is met with abuse. Vulnerability is immediately pounced upon. In the course of a few hours, Johnny argues a security guard out of his faith and replaces it with millennial madness. Any chance of bringing happiness or love into his life is disposed of, ferociously. The film’s final shot is incredibly unsettling, a Night Of The Living Dead shot for the 21st Century, when only dead men walk the earth. Watch it and be warned.


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