The work of writer Charles Bukowski can, most assuredly, be an acquired taste. Bukowski was best know for his raw, often brutal, largely autobiographical narratives involving alcoholism and womanizing, written with such uncompromising honesty that some people often mistake it for misogynistic nihilism. The truth, however, is that Bukowski was an incredible writer haunted by personal demons and addictions, who seemed more comfortable fraternizing with society's underbelly and never straying too far from the working class. This is what he largely wrote about, and he wrote about it exceptionally well, beautifully crafting words to describe the grime and decay that can eat away at a person's soul. And while Bukowski's work makes for some of my favorite reading, his work has yet to be adequately captured on film.
Adapted from Buskowski's collection of short stories Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, director Marco Ferreri's Tales of Ordinary Madness is an artistically ambitious attempt to bring the author's words to life in moving pictures. Ben Gazzara stars as poet Charles Serking, who any fan of Bukowski will recognize as a thinly veiled cinematic interpretation of Bukowski himself. Serking is the Bukowski protagonist, a self-loathing, lecherous drunk with a knack for scoring with women who are either beautiful and crazy, or just plain crazy, and even more self destructive than Serking himself. The plot is thinner than the paper Bukowski's prose was originally written on, as Serking basically wanders around, mostly in Los Angles, getting drunk and getting laid. He has a tryst with a sleazy sex pot he follows on the bus, which lands him in jail, fights with his ex-wife/landlord (Susan Tyrell), and gets into a dysfunctional relationship with an unbelievably beautiful prostitute named Cass (Ornella Muti), who expresses her inner pain through self mutilation. Beyond that, there's not much story, which actually is effective in the written work of Bukowski, but leaves Tales of Ordinary Madness an often plodding picture that drunkenly shambles along as if it's looking for a story to tell in between attempts to be visually arresting.
The problem with Tales of Ordinary Madness, is that it works on the assumption that Bukowski can be translated to film by simply showing whatever it is the writer has described in his work. But that doesn't work, simply because the pictures Bukowski paints with his words are incredibly detailed, but they are words that evoke atmosphere, mood, and even raw tactile stimulation in a way that you know not only what a dingy watering hole looks like, but also how it smells and sounds and some semblance of the vast history that has transpired at the other end of the bar. But none of that is conveyed in Ferreri's film. In other words, Bukowski is able to take readers to places and introduce them to people with his words in a way that is frightening tangible; whereas Ferreri shows us places and people, but nothing else. Ferreri's interpretation of Bukowski's work lacks the heart and soul that makes the words come alive.
Tales of Ordinary Madness has other problems beyond the difficulty of translating Bukowski to the screen. The film's meandering pace does not serve it well, and makes the 98-minute run time feel even longer. Ornella Muti seems miscast as the prostitute Cass, and by the time her character is introduced, the movie begins to stumble over blocks of pretentiousness. Bukowski's work could be called many things--sexist, fatalistic, profane, vulgar--but it should never be pretentious. As artistic as his work is in its own right, it is almost anti-art. It was not just spitting in the face of conventional and acceptable prose and poetry, Bukowski's writing dumped a big, fat steaming load shit on top of the head of conventional art and literature. And to that end, it was pretty much the opposite of what the film tries to be.
Despite the shortcomings of Tales of Ordinary Madness, it has one thing going for it that makes the film watchable, and that is Gazzara's incredible performance. Gazzara brings Bukowski's alter ego to life in a way that carries much of the film, and is more true to the booze-soaked, skirt-chasing anti-heroes found in the writer's work than Mickey Rourke or Matt Dillon, who both played essentially the same character in Barfly and Factotum, respectively. Gazzara captures the hard-lived-life persona, and looks more the part than Rourke or Dillon, who were both a little too pretty to play Bukowski's literary persona. But all three films have inherent problems which are almost enough to make you think that the work of Bukowski should not be attempted as motion pictures. At the same time, Steven Buscemi's Tres Lounge manages to create a Bukowski-like world on screen, proving that it isn't impossible.