Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)
From around 1969 to 1994 (The Black Sparrow Press years) Charles Bukowski (a/k/a “Buk”) was the Demon Angel of American letters. Attacked, vilified or ignored by the so-called “literary establishment” Bukowski established himself as “King of the Lower Depths” with a “Damn them all who don’t like it attitude”. He wrote about drunks, whores, criminals, derelicts and low lifes of every discernible stripe in a manner that both fascinated and repulsed the middle class in a variety of ways that made him, his writings and his poetry readings extremely popular especially among college students to whom he was something of a hero. And he wasn’t a one-trick pony either. Bukowski was a short story writer, a novelist, a controversial essayist and a poet. His books, especially the books of poetry, sold very well and his novels too. After a while he developed a cult following of considerable size. Again among the young.
Now Bukowski was a drunk, and a disorderly sort of person in life and nearly all of his fiction were thinly veiled autobiographies and he made no secret of it. Quite the opposite, he seemed to glory in the fact that him and his fictional alter ego Hank Chiniski, were effectively twins under the skin. Both were writers and drunks, both had fights and romances with wild, crazy women. Or women that he made wild and crazy once they became involved with him. Reading a Bukowski book is a wild but satisfying ride. And like Richard Brautigan, another idiosyncratic writer of a different stamp, you read one Bukowski book and you want to read another and another and another.
So it was only a matter of time before Hollywood, with its bourgeois taste and sensibilities came calling. And the independent filmmakers took on the challenge too. So much so that to date there are over 30 short films adapted from his short stories and 4 mainstream features from his novels. Now I have only seen a few of the short films and all of the feature length ones and to me they all are misses in one-way or another. Barfly (1987), with an original screenplay by Bukowski himself and directed by Barbet Schroeder, starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke (before his physical transformation), is the most popular and although the film is entertaining and sports good performances by its two star leads it still fails to capture the essence of Bukowski and his world. Factotum (2005), with Matt Dillon misses it even more. The other one called Crazy Love (1987) hits and misses, mostly misses. To me the one that comes closest to capturing the man and the world he wrote about is the little seen (here in the US) Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), adapted from a book called Errections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and other Tales of Ordinary Madness directed by the Italian filmmaker Mario Ferreri starring Ben Gazzara in what I consider to be among the five best performances of his career. He somehow seemed to channel Bukowski better than anyone before him or since. His writer/ alcoholic, here called Charles Serking, does poetry readings, drinks too much, misbehaves with women and figures of authority not so much by design but out of his renegade instinct. In the film he wanders all over the place in a drunken haze going from one fractured situation to another and one burnt-out woman after another. And the structure of the film has this wandering quality too. That is one of its strengths and its major weakness as well, because while watching it one wishes that the narrative was more disciplined and not so seemingly chaotic. Some of the episodes appear to be arbitrary and unnecessary and sometimes just outright dull. But hey, then again, so does life.
Besides Gazzara, the late Susan Tyrell and others give good account of themselves in the various parts. Tyrell is an actress whose work I knew in the 60s and 70s when she was doing Off and Off- Off Broadway. Then when she transitioned to the movies I followed her career with interest. Her performances were always good and even more than that. But she seemed to be type cast in too often as the drunken lay -about who had fallen from grace and was somewhat bitter or angry about it. In other words she was playing Bukowski women before she was actually in a film based on a Bukowski book. So here, as I said before, she fits in quite perfectly with the milieu.
Why the films based on Bukowski material miss so badly is a question I can’t answer. Or if I tried it would take me quite a long time and a whole lot of words to explain. But the final simple answer is; I don’t know. But until someone does, Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness along with Gazzara’s central let-it-all-hang-out performance, comes the closest.