BORDERLINE WEIRD: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS [STORIE DI ORDINARIA FOLLIA] (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri

FEATURING: Ben Gazarra, Ornella Muti

PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on

Still from Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.

COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures.  The first sequence illustrates the method.  Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall.  “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket.  That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife.  Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube.  Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself.  Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels.  Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film.  With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script.  Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel.  The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology.  The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you.  The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one.  He only vomits once.  But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.

Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal.  More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005).  Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony.  I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly.  Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings.  This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere inside its unworkable blend of pretension and pornography, there’s a serious film about art and sexual abandon struggling to get out… concentrates solely on the lurid aspects of Mr. Bukowski’s writing and exaggerates these so greatly that all else is lost.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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