Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Charles Bukowski is one of the most unusual writers in the history of the written world. I suppose he is best known to the world through the movie "Barfly", which he scripted himself, out of his own experiences. A street person and a hopeless drunk, barely literate, he had an urge to chronicle what life was like on his side of the bottle. Imagine a babbling, seemingly insane person muttering to himself in one of the world's urban areas. You've all met those people. Now imagine that guy writing down everything that comes into his mind, with no real regard for structure, grammar, or editing of any kind. That's "Hank".

Back in the days when I was teaching literature, I used to perform an exercise which was designed to get my students to think about what makes great literature different from the writing of average people, and about the cultural preconditions that we impose upon our judgments. My exercise consisted of the following: I would write a few hurried poems or paragraphs in the general style of any author, then mix them in with authentic works. I would ask the students to rank all the selections from best to worst, in their opinions. Of course, if I tried to duplicate Shakespeare or Faulkner or Joyce or T.S. Eliot, all of my imitations would be placed last. In almost all cases, my meager scribblings scored lower overall than the authentic works, and the teaching portion of the exercise was to have the students explain why that was so. There were two exceptions, however. One was Haiku, the other was Bukowski. It is easy to understand why students of English Literature like my Haiku better than authentic classic Haiku. First, the real thing isn't written in English, and it is difficult to translate poetry while maintaining its genius. Second, the students came from my culture and not the culture of the authentic authors. They didn't "think Japanese", preferring, like me, to capture some definitive image or to express a pithy fully-formed apothegm.

So why, then, did they prefer my Bukowski impersonations to the real Bukowski? Complex question.

1. They were mostly suburban students from the same kind of background as mine. The real Bukowski is authentically grimy, and I can't duplicate that. It is the difference between the real frontier and the movie westerns. Bukowski was the real frontier, and I could only write movie westerns. The students, familiar with movie westerns and preferring them to the ugly truth, liked my version better.

2. Bukowski can't write worth a lick. He is an average man of average intelligence and average literary skills. Maybe even less than average in some of those cases. He was a crusty old homeless drunk who had the overwhelming literary muse which compelled him to write stuff down. He didn't do much editing or refining, either. Do you think it is only geniuses who have an urge to create? For every Mozart there are 100 Salieris. The literary muse visits people at random, without regard for their talent. I have written more in my life than Tolstoy. The difference between me and Tolstoy is not in the desire to create, but in the ability.

Same deal with Buk. He had the urge, but not much else. If you sat down now and wrote a poem, it would be pretty much as good as anything Bukowski ever wrote in terms of your command of the language.

Of course, you could never duplicate his experiences and that's what makes his work important, even essential. He is really the only author who chronicles authentically, in a voice truly their own, the underclasses of urban America in the middle of the 20th century. When future historians want to steer a course toward the real life among the perpetually drunken, the insane homeless, the lowlife grifters, and the entire seamy unbathed underbelly of California society - the anti-Hollywood - they will turn to "Hank" as their lighthouse. If Tom Waits is the Skid Row Sinatra, Bukowski was the Skid Row Shakespeare, who spent his literary life chronicling his alcoholic existence among the depraved, the displaced, and the drunken in central L.A.

Bukowski's poetry is also noteworthy in that it brings the entire art of poetry back to the people. Poetry is virtually irrelevant now, a dead art form in the 21st century which was dying slowly throughout the 20th. Writing it has been viewed, like the composition of classical music, as an elitist activity. People read great poems by authors like John Keats and think, "if I want to understand that, it will require years to develop my skills. I'll have to study the Bible thoroughly, and all of Roman and Greek mythology, just for a starting point. Then I'll have to spend years reading poetry to develop a feel for the architecture of it - the vocabulary, the rhythm, the figures of speech. I'll have to learn all the traditional metaphorical meanings of color and animals, for example, so I can relate automatically to the symbolism, to "feel it". Then I'll have to study the various meters and try to learn why the poets choose one over another for certain purposes.". And all that is just to understand great poetry. To write it will require years of experimentation and refinement. That is not true with Bukowski's poems. You don't need anything more than a fourth grade education to understand them, or even to write others which exhibit comparable talent. He was Larry Flynt's favorite poet - tell you anything? See any of Ezra Pound's work in Hustler? Buk's poems may not be great, or even good, but they did create some appreciation of poetry in the lowbrow audience, and not many people managed that in the latter part of the 20th century.

Bukowski was fond of pointing out that he started getting drunk at 17, but didn't get laid until he was 23.

He pretty much never slowed down on either, or on talking about both subjects.

Although he could sometimes write very movingly about mainstream society's rejection of his world, I don't much like Bukowski's work. On the other hand, the demented, anti-establishment, eternally masturbating French playwright Jean Genet called Buk "the best poet in America". Many literary scholars liken him to Catullus, the bawdy, earthy Latin poet who kinda represented the evil twin of Ovid. So Bukowski has his defenders, and he certainly occupies a unique place in Literary Olympus.

"Tales of Ordinary Madness" is adapted from Bukowski's mostly autobiographical experiences in "Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness". It starts with Ben Gazzara (the Bukowski character) wooing a twelve year old midget, jumps into his affair with a self-mutilating hooker, and continues with his drunken adventures among obese women, women who don't bathe, you name it. Purely slice-of-life, it doesn't lead anywhere, and the characters don't grow. That is authentic. Think about the unreformed alcoholics you know. They don't grow. If anything, they just slowly deteriorate. Do they have dreams in the sense that they strive to attain those goals in a systematic fashion? Probably not. They don't move toward things. They drift from day to day until something happens to them. The movie follows that same structure.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, go for it. Read the comments at IMDb, because many people praised its authenticity.

Mr. Bukowski, aged 23

(just kidding about the age. He was nearly 25 at the time.)


  • It's a Marco Ferreri movie, so you can bet that lots of ugly people got naked. (He's the guy who did the movie with Depardieu and the old lady). Luckily for us, at least one beautiful person got naked, although only from behind! Twice. Ornella Muti.

The rest showed the works.

  • Susan Tyrrell must hold the record for the most sexually explicit pose in a Ben Gazzara movie. Tyrell spreads 'em wide. She is filthy. Gazzara finds her passed out, but he decides to screw her anyway.  He abandons her for a bit because he needs a drink. When he returns, she is awake and she rapes him!
  • Judith Drake is an obese woman about whom the less said the better. I'll bet they didn't ask her to do nude scenes very often.
  • Tanya Lopert as Gazzara's ex-wife. Not attractive or young, but at least a nice enough body to look at.
  • Katya Berger was quite young, and had very firm plump breasts. As far as I know, this was her only nude scene. She promised to show Ben her body in return for a custom poem.

Tuna's Thoughts

Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981) could be best described as a slice of life film about Charles Bukowski. This is the same Bukowski that wrote the autobiographical screenplay for Barfly. He was one of the most important of the "Beat" generation poets, who chose to live as a drunk in skid row Hollywood, and claimed that the odd assortment of crooks, whores, pimps, drunks, homeless, and other low-lifes were the only "real" people, and the only ones he felt at home with.

This story deals with his encounters with several women, including a teenaged runaway, a blonde bombshell (Susan Tyrell), that he met at Venice Beach and followed home , a hooker he picked up in a bar and fell in love with (Ornella Muti), his ex wife and landlady (Tanya Lopert) and a young woman he meets on the beach at the end of the film (Katya Berger). Tyrell induces him to whip and rape her, has him arrested, then drops charges. The ex-wife is constantly locking him out of his apartment, and harassing him. Muti is self-destructive, and is prone to self- mutilation. He falls in love with her, but she finally succeeds in one of her suicide attempts.

Near the end of the film, a "girl on the beach" asks him where poetry comes from. He tells her to show him her titties, and he will compose a poem for her. She strips naked. This recitation of the poem is not the first in the film, but is the only one that is somewhat effective.

Ben Gazzara does a good job at portraying Bukowski. The film succeeds in that it gives a real feel for this world. It
was so effective, in fact, that I needed a shower after watching it. Although it tells who these people are, it gives no clues as to why they are that way, and hence is a very depressing film about a side of life that most people find depressing.

Since this is the second film about Bukowski in less than a month, I thought I would include one of his poems so those who are not familiar with him could get a feel for his work.



the history of melancholia
includes all of us
me, I writhe in dirty sheets
while staring at blue walls
and nothing.

I have gotten so used to melancholia
I greet it like an old

I will now do 15 minutes of grieving
for the lost redhead,
I tell the gods.

I do it and feel quite bad
quite sad,
then I rise
even though nothing
is solved.

that's what I get for kicking
religion in the ass.
I should have kicked the redhead
in the ass
where her brains and her bread and
butter are
at ...

but, no, I've felt sad
about everything:
the lost redhead was just another
smash in a lifelong
loss ...

I listen to drums on the radio now
and grin.
there is something wrong with me

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen format

  • no features

  • primitive DVD (several years old)

Scoop's note on the poem:

In general, I love the concept of ending a stanza with an unnecessary word (Stanza 5: "at ... "), but when that word also takes a perfectly good English sentence structure and renders it syntactically incorrect, and occupies an entire new line by itself, I really have to stand back in awe of the mind that created it. Very few poets are both redundant and illiterate.

OK, maybe Lord Byron, but not many others.

I'll drink to that, Buk!

The Critics Vote

  • there is a good, amusing review at DVDlaser

The People Vote ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C-. Do you remember the line in Blazing Saddles in which one guy praises Gabby Johnson for "authentic frontier gibberish"? Here is your real-life illustration. Bukowski's creations are gibberish, but they are authentic gibberish, consarn it. (Tuna says: I was not overly impressed. While it is not without merit, it puts me somewhere I just don't like being, and then has no lessons to teach. Bukowski would probably say that was perfect. C-.)

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