Storie di ordinaria follia (1981)

AKA Tales of Ordinary Madness

Years before the writings of boozing philosopher Charles Bukowski reached mainstream cinema (sort of) with Barfly, maverick Italian director Marco Ferreri tackled the same subject with Tales of Ordinary Madness, an Italian-French coproduction that was apparently Ferreri’s bid for mainstream acceptance. However, even streamlined Ferreri is still pretty bizarre; though set mostly in Los Angeles, the interiors were shot at Cinecitta and have a weird, color coordinated, sleazy splendor. When most European directors do their exterior shooting in America, they have a way of making everything look really off-kilter (e.g., Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point), and this is no exception. Ferreri visually transforms the California streets into a sundrenched, decaying series of asphalt tombs, and the people who pass on them are all basically trying to inflict any emotional shocks upon themselves to remind them of what it feels like to be alive. Chief among them is our protagonist, Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara), a thinly diguised Bukowski stand-in, who drifts along between various bars and women as he spouts cynical poetry.

After delivering a booze-ridden speech at the opening, Serking escorts the viewer on a little tour of L.A. which first involves him spying a punk-blond woman (Susan Tyrrel) on the beach, and, noting “she had an ass like a wild animal,” he follows her back to her apartment and rapes her (with her consent, oddly enough). Tyrrell’s roles tend to be bizarre, and this is no exception. She calls the cops on Serking while he’s taking a bath, causing him to intone, “She chewed me up like an enchilada and spit me into a police car.” Undeterred, Serking winds up catching the eye of masochistic, beautiful barfly Ornella Muti (also in Ferreri’s startling The Last Woman and most familiar to U.S. viewers as Princess Aura in 1980’s Flash Gordon). After she performs an impromptu cheek-piercing at a bar, Serking decides he’d better go home with this woman, and they sort of fall in love. It all ends badly, however, so Serking goes back and falls into the arms of Tyrrell’s obese landlady (don’t ask). Ah, but there’s more! Eventually he and Muti get back together and go off to a beachhouse where there share a few idyllic moments; Muti falls apart, however, and performs a very nasty act of sexual self-mutilation (a recurring Ferreri motif) that sends him fleeing in dismay.

Obviously this is not a film for everybody, but if you’re curious about Ferreri, this is as good a place to start as any. While it lacks the consistent outrageousness of his masterpiece La Grande Bouffe, Tales is firmly anchored by Gazzara’s authoritative and often devastating performance. His years of cutting teeth on Cassavettes films definitely served him well, and he has some truly great moments. The most memorable bit involves Serking’s half-hearted attempt at getting a desk job at an office. where he can’t resist the urge to start pelting his fellow coworkers in their cubicles with beer cans. As Ferreri’s female icon of choice in this film, Muti looks fantastic as always and manages some nice dramatic moments; it’s also nice to hear her speaking with her own voice for a change instead of the usual post-synch dubbing. Ferreri keeps a surprising grip on the material (he adapted it himself along with Sergio Amidei and Anthony Foutz), aided by Tonino Delli Colli’s evocative photography and a delicate, restrained score by Philippe Sarde, obviously written around the same time as Tess.