Saturday, February 4, 2012


I observed the passing of Ben Gazzara last night by unwrapping a film I suppose I had been reserving for a special occasion, or at least a special mood, because it turned out to be the perfect choice. A Marco Ferreri film based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS is a character sketch of Charles Serking, an alcoholic street poet following his muse while living in Los Angeles. Gazzara opens the film with a tour de force soliloquy at what appears to be an open mike evening at an abandoned but palatial theater where some homeless people are sleeping. After walking offstage a few lines into the next poet's feminist reading, he seduces one of the residents (Wendy Welles, a diminutive drifter who's passing herself off as a 12-year-old girl), wakes up with his pockets emptied and a love note left behind, and returns home to his downtown apartment, opposite that of his ex-wife (Tanya Lopert). The film offers no continuous story save that of the character's search for inspiration among the women in his life. These include a random pickup at Venice Beach (Susan Tyrell, their high-drama sexual encounter at her apartment is hilarious), her heavy-set single mother neighbor (Judith Drake, whose womb he tearfully attempts to crawl back into), and a "not just pretty... devastating" hooker named Cass (Ornella Muti) who appreciates Serking as "the first man I've been with who isn't in a rush" but whose self-hatred runs to fits of self-mutilation. In a third act twist, Serking is invited to New York to participate in a well-compensated poetry program, but the wild animal does not take well to captivity.

There have been a number of films made about artists and their muses, and though Bukowski reportedly detested this one, Ferreri actually gets it right. If poetry exalts the commonplace and finds the universality in the extraordinary, so it is with the women in this film; even the most commonplace of them, the muu-muu-wearing single mother who prostitutes herself to him for a few bucks, becomes a creature utterly contrary to her first impression behind closed doors. And this search for the magic in squalor extends to the film's bars-at-midday ambience, which finds night in the afternoon and the hidden underside of a great city wherein he finds himself suddenly embroiled in characters and situations that point the way to the kinds of derelict magic realism David Lynch would make his own from BLUE VELVET onwards. Gazzara's final encounter with a young woman (Katya Berger) on the beach, experienced after his return to LA, a terrible loss and one hell of a bender, is specifically hard to peg as reality or fantasy but would be beautiful as either.

I already want to watch it a second time.

Viewed on Koch Lorber DVD, as part of THE MARCO FERRERI COLLECTION box set.


  1. A wholly appropriate tribute...and a movie I remember watching on HBO/Max back in the day, simply to see some skin (hey, I was 17, though at age 47 I'm not entirely above that). What I found was something far more "adult" and turbulent and unsettling, not unlike GOING PLACES...but not like it, either. A must to revisit; I had no idea such a set existed, thanks for the tip.

    Nice that Criterion is releasing ANATOMY OF A MURDER this month. I think it's Otto Preminger's best film, and an almost ridiculously entertaining 160 minutes, thanks in no small part to the great Gazzara.

  2. I've always thought that rather than strictly following up on Bukowski's realism, Ferrera put some surrealism into it, but magic realism, as you mention, might be more precise. Apparently, Bukowski hated this film because it glorifies the kind of life he portrayed in his books (and lived himself). And it is true! Whenever I watch this off-beat masterpiece (which I've done 10 times since first seeing i int he cinemas in '83), I always want to get drunk on som (bad) wine...

  3. Just as Ben Gazarre made two back-to-back films with Audrley Hepburn (THEY ALL LAUGHTED and BLOODLINE), TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS is one of two back-to-back films he made with Ornella Muti in the early 80's. The second Gazarra/Muti film is THE GIRL FROM TRIESTE, which also follows the relationship of Gazarra as another artist (this time he draws comic books) involved with a another troubled, suicidal women played by Muti.