Judge Daryl Loomis wrote this review from the local flophouse.
I wasn't about to chase the great American wet dream. I'd rather get drunk.
Charles Bukowski was a drunk, a lout, a misogynist, and a bastard. He was also a writer with a unique voice, rightfully called the Poet Laureate of Skid Row, who wrote poems and autobiographical stories about life on the very fringes of society and the people who claw desperately for a dollar or a drink, whichever is easiest to reach. Of course, Bukowski was often one of the desperate, but one who could eloquently, if roughly, describe the madness of such a life. In 1987, the writer himself would pen an original film in Barfly, but Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe), in 1981, would create Tales of Ordinary Madness, a distillation of the stories contained in Bukowski's large volume: Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.
Facts of the Case
Writer and noted drunk Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara, Road House) wanders the streets of L.A. with the depressed and the damned trying to live, love, and find a drink. One night of many at the bar, Charles sees a prostitute being harrassed by her pimp. She breaks free and sits down next to him. Her name is Cass (Ornella Muti, Flash Gordon) and she is the most beautiful woman in town. He falls in love with that beauty, but becomes obsessed by her damaged, self-destructive soul. He's much too jaded to think he can help her, but he wants to experience every part of her being. As beautiful their love, so is the pull of temptation, however, taking their lives into directions that, while separate, both lead only into sadness and regret.
Tales of Ordinary Madness isn't a happy movie, but neither is it a happy book. There is, however, a joy in both, a love of life that trumps the filthy morose lives that are our subjects. The main story is mostly culled from Bukowski's story The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, but the events of the film as a whole are a smattering of the entire collection and, as such, the film is much more a loose series of unconnected scenes than a coherent narrative. Much like Henry Chinaski of Bukowski's writing, Charles Serking is a character firmly based in the writer himself. Any difference between the character and the real man is exaggeration for the sake of romance and is there ever a lot. Bukowski was from a tradition of writers that romanticized loutish male behavior. Whether it began with Hemmingway, he did it best, but the ideal lives for these artists was as the sophisticate in the company of misfits, reveling in wine and violence. While on a certain sad level, these writers make such a life absolutely appealing, it doesn't extend far from the page. These lives are not beautiful, only hard and mean; those like Bukowski, gracious as he is, lives this life so you don't have to. We can achieve a kind of perverse satisfaction without damaging our livers so badly, at the very least. This is both the attracting and the repelling force of Bukowski's work, a feeling that remains constant in Marco Ferreri's film.
Ferreri, maybe, understands the tone of his subject too well, because Tales of Ordinary Madness is much more Last Tango in Paris than Barfly. Bukowski, having written the later Mickey Rourke vehicle, certainly understood the romance in his storytelling, but stopped short at making his own character out to be particularly noble. Ferreri, who also penned this film, makes the Serking character a tragic hero, a victim of circumstance and his own bad decisions, but an inherently good man. In light of his behavior, however, for no other reason than hedonistic gain, it is very hard to feel bad for his losses. The pity is misguided into the poor souls his life touches. By his charisma or his unfiltered lust for life, people are drawn to him but, while they are ultimately worse for his presence, the film portrays them as diminished when he leaves and somehow emboldened by his influence. Presenting Serking as the lovable rogue is Ferreri's only misstep, however.
Much as my preceding impressions of the film are somewhat negative, I actually liked Tales of Ordinary Madness very much. Once upon a time, I was a voracious Bukowski reader, soaking up every word that the City Lights and Black Sparrow Press labels would print. In some ways, however, Bukowski is a one trick pony and I stopped caring enough to continue reading, but I'll always love him as a writer. On that level, Tales of Ordinary Madness is a brilliant adaptation of the original stories. Heavy on narration and episodic in structure, Ferreri lets Bukowski's work do the talking (many, but not all, of the monologues are from the book). The director adds stylistic visual touches all over the place, but the text is the centerpiece of the characters and the film. Ben Gazzara's gravelly voice floats over the top of the entire film, narrating his own actions in a matter of fact, unapologetic tone. He clearly thinks more highly of himself than most, but his self-image has its limitations, too. He knows he's a scumbag as much as we do, but he always has an excuse. As a figure, Gazzara is too handsome and too happy for my taste, but his irreverence is exactly the kind of roguish spirit Ferreri wants. Ornella Muti is perfect as Cass. The damage is apparent in her eyes, but it makes her more beautiful. She is exactly as Bukowski describes her in The Most Beautiful Girl in Town:
Cass was fluid moving fire. She was like a spirit suck into a form that would not hold her. Her hair was black and long and silken and moved and whirled about as did her body. Her spirit was either very high or very low. There was no in between for Cass. Some said she was crazy. The dull ones said that.
Where Gazzara's Serking is overly idealized casting, Cass is already idealized in the story and Muti embodies that role in every way. At times, she seems blank, but this is more than appropriate. Cass is a mysterious character, full of lies and pain. While Cass's speech is never described in the story, Muti's quiet Italian accent adds another level of exotic mystery, heightening the fantasy of her clouded past but also wrenching the screws when Cass performs unspeakable acts upon herself.
Tales of Ordinary Madness is undeniably explicit, unflinching in its portrait of these desperate lives. Not everything Cass does is shown, but enough is there to give us a pretty good idea of her disturbing level of self-mutilation. As in the text, sex is heavy on the plate, but it's as erotic as a sandpaper thong. Susan Tyrell (Far from Home) makes an impactful appearance as Vera, from the story Rape! Rape!, in scenes about as pleasant as they sound. Overpoweringly sexual but absolutely hollow, these scenes are ugly and violent, animalistic in a way that Ferreri would never portray animals. The biggest virtue of the film is in the way that Ferreri contrasts the abject ugliness of its sexuality with the natural beauty surrounding its characters. Much of the film takes place indoors but, when they go outside, Fererri shoots a gorgeous backdrop for the characters to perform around. While they are supposedly in Los Angeles, the barren coastlines create an almost dreamlike place for their actions. These are people who can recognize beauty outside of themselves, but their quest to hold it goes continually unfulfilled.
Koch Lorber, in usual fashion, has presented a mediocre DVD release for Tales of Ordinary Madness. The transfer is anamorphic, so it has that going for it, but is otherwise mediocre. While Ferreri was clearly going for a soft look for the film, the image is overly so, grainy with muted colors. In the outdoor scenes, there is some obvious edge enhancement, but it is certainly watchable. The sound is fine, but there is nothing special in any way. The only extra is an excerpt from Marco Ferreri: The Director Who Came from the Future, a documentary on the life of the director. We get the four minutes of material relevant to the film, but nothing about Charles Bukowski, whose influence is as integral to this film as the director's.
Marco Ferreri, as is his wont, goes a little overboard in his portrayal of Charles Serking as a tragic but noble figure. Bukowski in whatever form, be it under his own name, Charles Serking, or Henry Chinaski, was a reprehensible figure, but an appealing one at the same time. In many ways, he gets the spirit of the original work spot on, but falls a little short in portraying the filthy world in which the writer lived. The look, the performances, and the attention to Bukowski's original work, however, make Tales of Ordinary Madness an ultimately rewarding film, if sometimes a very guilty pleasure.
Not guilty. Who brought the wine?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Documentary Clip
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