Factotum at The W

Monday, August 7th, 2006 | All Things, Film, NYC History

Attended a screening of Bent Hamer’s Factotum tonight at the W – Union Square hotel’s Grand Ballroom.

In its previous life, the 20-story in Beaux Arts–style building now housing the W New York – Union Square was known to 20th century New Yorkers as the Guardian Life Insurance Building. Originally named The Germania Life Insurance Company (after its founding by German immigrants), the company was renamed to “Guardian” after the German association became a liability during World War I. And not coincidentally, the name change did not require changing any of the decorative “GLIC” masonry carved throughout the building.

The company headquarters was built in 1911, and boasted one of the early versions of neon signage on their distinctive four-story mansard roof. The current “W Union Square” sign is a tribute and close style reproduction of the old sign.

In 1998, the Related Companies, LP paid $45 million for the landmarked tower at Park Avenue South and 17th Street when Guardian decided to move its operations downtown to Hanover Square. The company spent an additional $100 million to transform the Union Square building into a boutique hotel, while maintaining some of the original old–New York charm, including the marble stairwells and moldings, original tiled elevator landings and a spectacular marble-columned, plaster flower ceilinged, double-height ballroom on the second floor that once had been Guardian’s bank hall, then employee cafeteria.

Here, the ornate white marbled grand arcade, with elaborately scrolled arches and overhead domes (with “GLIC” detail):

W Grand Hall

The Rockwell Group designed the space to accommodate old and new. The modern main staircase emerges from the sleek lobby, following the arch of the original one, which was removed during the years-long renovation.

W Staircase

At the pre-screening reception, CS and I were treated to an open concessions bar: funky glassed Voss water (Norwegian water in honor of the Norwegian director?), sodas, Twizzlers, M&Ms, Junior Mints, Red Hots, Pirate’s Booty, popcorn – the works. Also some tasty Crème de Cassis-concoctions in martini glasses, but those seemed like potential trouble, so we demurred after just one each.

As the title frame informs: “Factotum” means “man of many jobs.” The film is an adaptation of prolific cult author Charles Bukowski‘s 1975 novel and incorporates elements from his many short stories. A portrait of the artist as a young drunk, the film is a series of booze-soaked vignettes revolving around the debauched misadventures of Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry (Hank) Chinaski (played by Matt Dillon) — a self-destructive, self-proclaimed story writer who burns through a series of menial jobs in his quest for the fleeting satisfactions of gambling, women and drink. For a time, he maintains a relationship of sorts with Jan, another hard-living, vulnerable soul, played to raspy effect by Lili Taylor (who is in my mind indelibly associated with her role as would-be folk singer Corey Flood in one of my favorite movies, Say Anything. “The world is full of guys. Be a man. Don’t be a guy.”) Hank and Jan’s rushed coupling seems doomed from the start, yet despite being fueled by mutual drunkenness, loneliness and brutality, there are surprising flashes of tenderness, such as when Hank stops in the street to place his own shoes on Jan’s feet when she can no longer walk in her high heels. The movie as a whole was like that, too, and despite suffering through repeated indignities and failures, Hank seemed to view his life with bemusement rather than rage or desperation, while making no apologies for his degeneration.

After the film, we enjoyed tasty chicken salads, al fresco at Republic on Union Square.

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