in 1993 with the help of grants from the Austrian Department
of Education and Art, and the County of Upper Austria, this
film received limited theatrical release in the U.S. five years
later and subsequent video sales due to the popularity of the
1997 Hollywood release of "L.A. Confidential"—which
not only made up-and-comers of stars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce,
but brought the man whose books inspired it to a deservedly
larger circle of readers.
James Ellroy updated the classic
Raymond Chandler noir in the 1980s, first with a collection
of thrillers about cops and serial killers (and serial killer
cops!), then through a series of four related novels set in
Los Angeles between 1947 and 1959, and informally known as "the
LA quartet": The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere,
LA Confidential, and White Jazz. Dark, gritty,
violent, profane, and bewilderingly complicated, the books "are
about obsession," Ellroy says. "I want to put as much
densely packed social history into a series of novels as the
farthest reaches of my brain and soul can encompass."
With nods to Evan Hunter (who
observed that private eyes don’t investigate homicides; city
policemen do) and Joseph Wambaugh ("the most important
writer since Hammett," who showed cops "traumatized
for socially valid reasons"), Ellroy declares he was sick
and tired of novels about "bullshit loner private eyes,"
and set out instead to "show bureaucracies as obscenely
corrupt, structural systems in society as extremely corrupt,
and policemen as both exploiters of it and victims of it, drawn
by hellishly personal motives to solve crimes and restore personal
order to their own lives because the corruption that engulfs
them on all levels is huge."
Before he was ready to do that,
however, there would be years of alcohol, drugs, pornography,
and breaking into private homes—mostly just to do it (stealing
medicine from cabinets, making sandwiches in deserted kitchens)
and see what other people’s lives were like. Ellroy cheerfully
recalls breaking repeatedly into one girl’s home to "sniff
her panties, prowl around her bedroom."
One doesn’t have to look far
for the sources of the writer’s obsessions. Born in 1948, he
lost his mother to an unsolved murder (probably the result of
a sexual pick-up that went bad) when he was 10. He developed
a displaced fascination for a similar but much more spectacular
unsolved murder that occurred the year before his birth: the
nude, tortured, bisected, and blood-drained corpse of a beautiful
22-year-old girl—"flaky and promiscuous" Elizabeth
Ann Short—who came to be known in the press as "The Black
Young Ellroy would bicycle down
to the spot where Short’s body was discovered, feel her presence
there, fear to sleep, and have nightmares about her. "I
felt that I knew her then; I felt that I loved her. I felt it
because I realized that at age 22 I was substantially more fucked
up than she was, but nobody killed me. I had the chance to quit
drinking, using drugs—survive and make something out of myself."
A lung abscess nearly killed him in 1975, and Alcoholics Anonymous
got him out of his slough so he could start writing.
Ellroy would devise a novelistic
solution to Short’s murder, and his books would feature sizable
cameos by real people—billionaire playboy Howard Hughes, Jewish
hood Mickey Cohen, muscle man and gigolo Johnny Stompanato (who
won a footnote in Hollywood trivia history by becoming the murder
victim of his girlfriend Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter)—along
with the tainted cops who were his protagonists.
The author manages to be both
vainglorious and self-deprecating when he tells the camera:
"I wanted to be Tolstoy, I wanted to be Dostoyevsky, I
wanted to be Balzac; I wanted to be all those guys that, you
know, quite frankly, I’ve never really read…. I wanted to give
people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale."
Anyone who’s read Ellroy’s best
books would not instantly gainsay the proposition that he may
just have succeeded. He and his work deserve a documentary;
unfortunately, this one is a bit too fannish to achieve the
proper level of majesty.
The filmmakers cover all the
bases—Ellroy talking about the real crimes and personalities
behind his books (there are a few graphic stills of murder victims,
including the Dahlia, and some video footage of Cohen), his
writing techniques, disparaging serial killers as a subject
for serious literature, recounting his fears and escapades,
speaking soberly about his mother’s killing and its repercussions
(talking about it for this film may have given Ellroy some of
the impetus to tackle his superb 1996 memoir and love letter
to his mother, My Dark Places), doing a bookstore reading—but
they also pad the film with "atmosphere": long
minutes of people on the street, neon signs, panoramas of strip
malls, a gun store clerk showing a woman several pistols, a
hooker dickering with a client and then climbing into his car.
These resemble the 15-second
sequences that open each segment of "NYPD Blue," but
much more languid, and without the jittery soundtrack that energizes
the TV sequences. Perhaps this stuff was exotic for Austrian
viewers, but it does little for Americans. Most of it is utterly
banal, and viewers wouldn’t pay it 10 seconds of attention if
the sound were turned off. The one sequence that eerily works
is roughly 60 seconds of the Arroyo High School varsity cheerleaders
going through their paces in a middle-distance shot, just after
Ellroy has talked about the Black Dahlia. You can’t help wondering
where these girls will end up, whether any of them will crash
and burn, or meet a dark destiny in an alley or motel room.
It’s a welcome relief every time
Ellroy, who comes across like a verbal prize fighter, returns
to the screen. He howls half a dozen times at the beach, jovially
points out Peter Lawford’s beach house where JFK played "bury
the brisket" with Marilyn Monroe. He’s especially wry when
he talks about the impossibility of properly filming any of
his books (although he’s been quoted in the press as being largely
happy with "LA Confidential").
The strength of this film lies
in its subject’s energy, focus, and articulateness about his
motivations and work: "I want to leave all of you with
a weird, strange, ugly, pervasive sense of bad ju-ju ramifications
extending beyond the last page of my books. I don’t want to
ever give you a tidy book where the good guy wins and the bad
guy loses on the last page, or even where the bad guy wins and
the good guy loses. I want you to feel it going on and on and
on and on and on and on. I want to go darker, deeper, richer,
more sexed-out, more sensuous, more profound, more perversely
strange, weird, and redemptive."
In sum, this is a video for Ellroy
fanatics. It might inspire someone who has never read his books
to check them out, but such a person would be well advised to
go to the novels first.
Loftus doesn't normally read mysteries or police procedurals.
Or reread more than one or two books among the hundred or so
he reads every year. But he is astounded by Ellroy's work, and
found it worth rereading. Loftus lives in Portland, Oregon.
His book about men and pornography, Watching Sex, will
be published by Thunder's Mouth Press in the winter of 2001-02.
David Loftus, Writer
Wolfgang Lehner—Executive Producer/Striptwriter/Cinematography
Sam Auinger, Deedee Neidhart—Music
1993, 91 minutes