Monday, January 3, 2011

Film Review: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (1981, Marco Ferreri)

Stars: 2.5 of 5.
Running Time: 101 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Ben Gazzara (THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI), Ornella Muti (FLASH GORDON, OSCAR), Susan Tyrrell (FLESH + BLOOD, FAT CITY), Tanya Lopert (FELLINI SATYRICON, PROVIDENCE), Roy Brocksmith (TOTAL RECALL, TANGO & CASH, ARACHNOPHOBIA). Based on the book by Charles Bukowski (BARFLY, FACTOTUM). Music by Philippe Sarde (TESS, QUEST FOR FIRE, THE TENANT). Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY; SEVEN BEAUTIES; SALO; LACOMBE, LUCIEN).
Tag-line: None.
Best one-liner: "You owe me a beer, bitch!"

Bukowski entreats us to the continuing adventures of an old man who'd rather be getting drunk than chasing the Great American Wet Dream, but Marco Ferreri's got other things in mind.

I like Ferreri. His well-known experiments in debauchery and mid-life ennui (LA GRANDE BOUFFE, DILLINGER IS DEAD) might lead one to assume that he'd be perfect for tackling the gutter ramblings of Charles Bukowski, but the marriage isn't quite ideal. Bukowski himself was displeased with the end result, and it's not difficult to see why: largely missing is the lunatic energy, bursting humor, and casual flow that makes his poetry and prose so readable and compelling. Ferreri's film, as a whole, often feels lifeless and pretentious (save for a few extremely choice scenes), an atmosphere which finds itself at odds with the designs of Bukowski's writing.

Furthermore, Ben Gazzara- who's one of the finest actors of his generation- is unfortunately miscast. Unlike Mickey Rourke's depiction of the same character in BARFLY, you believe that Gazzara has responsibilities. It's important to believe that the Bukowski-cypher floats through life's misfortunes, dirty jobs, and stiff drinks with a charmingly psychotic indifference: a woman met at the bar could represent free lodging, a church could represent an auspicious place to take a shit, getting arrested for a crime one didn't commit could represent a great opportunity to sleep off a hangover.

As Gazzara tackles these situations, he comes across as a semi-classy guy who's merely slummin' it. But Bukowski's alter ego does not slum–the gutter is simply his natural habitat, a place for "the defeated, the demented, and the damned- they are the real people in this world, and I was proud to be in their company." To make matters worse, costume designer Nicoletta Ercole puts him in cardigans half the time. Cardigans, of all things. (To read some more of my personal disdain for cardigans, read almost any of my Michael Ironside reviews.)

But I don't mean to completely razz this film as there are a lot of nice things going on, too. First and foremost would be the Susan Tyrrell scene. Now, if anyone was born to be a Bukowski lady, it was Susan Tyrrell. Her genius in films like FAT CITY and FLESH + BLOOD has been oft discussed on this site. No one (except possibly Glenda Jackson) can quite so perfectly embody the concept of 'sewer pipe babe' like Tyrrell. Her bit here is that of a leopard-print sarong-wearin', zany purple eyeshadow'd, sleazy, skeezy, sleeeezy lady that our hero meets on a bus.

He follows her back to her apartment whereupon wine-with-a-price-tag is quaffed and Tyrrell reveals her penchant for narcolepsy (?!).

There's some nauseating sex, and then the cops show up.

All in a day's work for Tyrrell, who can effortlessly pendulate from mysterious beauty to grotesque hag in a matter of seconds, and without the benefit of a 'makeup change.' In short: acting. In a world where most of my favorite character actors are men who- either by choice or by Hollywood's designs- are not afraid to hit rock-bottom... to get ugly, it's refreshing to see an actress willing to let it all hang out. I see performances by such talented ladies as Susan Tyrrell, Grace Zabriskie, Glenda Jackson, Isabella Rossellini and the like, and it saddens me that there aren't more in their ranks- or at the very least producers, writers, and directors who believe in female character actors who are willing to step up to the plate and deliver.

Anyway, much of her brilliance is subverted by our actual female lead, Ornella Muti, a model-turned-actress whose good looks obviously escape scrutiny, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for her connection to Bukowski's material.

Though she certainly engages in Bukowski-friendly activities.

For being a "two-bit, mentally unwell, L.A. hooker," she certainly plays the vampy, Euro-chic card a few times too often. By the time her unusual compulsions and backstory are finally visited and explained in depth, I found myself too disconnected to care.

But again, this is balanced out by some positive elements. I haven't yet had a chance to mention that the production design is phenomenal. Every wallpaper stain, rug discoloration, and blazing cheapie lightbulb has been carefully overseen, and to great effect.



There are a few more scenes of note, as well– when Gazzara spends the night in a random, unlocked vehicle at a used car lot, he is rudely awakened in the morn' by the lot owner and his sadistic 9-year-old son who beat him with ball bats, repeatedly. This is the kind of bizarrely dreamlike (yet harshly naturalistic) scene that should have populated the entire film, not just a few select segments.

Gazzara bears the brunt of the little runt's perversion.

There's also an unusual (albeit too brief) incident whereupon our unshaven hero has an inexplicable run-in with a robot (!?) which I have no choice but to applaud.

Perhaps the next logical step is a Bukowski sci-fi?

While it certainly possesses the occasional flash of genius, on the whole, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (and Gazzara) mishandle the spirit of Bukowski, but it's not from a lack of tryin'. If the entire movie had been fueled by Susan Tyrrell's deranged enthusiasm, perhaps it would have had a chance, but I couldn't help but constantly- and unfavorably- compare it with Barbet Schroeder's BARFLY and marvel at the fluency and straightforwardmess with which Schroeder and Rourke managed to translate Bukowski to film.

-Sean Gill

4 comments:

J.D. said...

Hrm. Never seen this one much less heard of it. I do dig Gazarra and it's shocking that he's miscast, here. He certainly do scuzzy as evident with his leering father character in BUFFALO '66. Have you seen FACTOTUM where Matt Dillon adopts the Bukowski persona? I myself haven't check it out but heard good things. And it's got a killer cast ta boot...

Sean Gill said...

It's tough to explain. Gazzara isn't bad- he's never BAD- nor does he fail to nail pure scuzziness. The problem probably lies with Ferreri's direction, actually- you just get the sense that his sordid lifestyle is something temporary, that he's planning on doing something respectable later. And though his beard is grizzled and shirt untucked, you get the idea that he cares about how he looks. Whereas for me, the power of the Chinaski character is that he eschews mirrors entirely, doesn't care about open wounds and sores and the like- his sense of self is in his mind. He (literally on occasion), lives on the edge- eat, drink, and be merry 'cause tomorrow we might bite it. I see all of that in Schroeder-directed Rourke, but only fleeting touches of it in Ferreri-directed Gazzara. And I'm probably just touchy about it because of how taken I've become with Bukowski's writings in the last couple of months.

I have heard about the movie version of FACTOTUM, and will definitely have to see it at some point. Not sure how well circa 2005 Matt Dillon (I'm a bigger fan of grittier, 80's Dillon) will nail the Chinaski role, but Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens seem tailor-made for it. And I do love anything with Adrienne Shelly, R.I.P.

Anonymous said...

My favorite comment about Gazarra's performance in this movie comes from Bukowski himself.

"He had appealing eyes like a constipated man sitting on the pot straining to crap. I liked the eyes. But take that away and he was too comfortable. Nice macho guy, but self-pleased, not insane at all. Probably a great variety of ass had cooled him out."

Sean Gill said...

Anon.,

That's a fantastic quote, sums it up perfectly. I do love Gazzara, though– he's just not quite Chinaski.