James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction
1993, NR, 90 min. Directed by Reinhard Jud.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 24, 1998
“I want to leave all of you with a weird, strange, utterly pervasive sense of the bad juju ramifications extending beyond the last page of my books,” says Ellroy as he stands on a bluff overlooking the smoggy skyline of his beloved Los Angeles. Anyone who has read the author of White Jazz, The Big Nowhere, or L.A. Confidential knows he's not just talking shit. This 1994 documentary by Austrian filmmaker Jud does that, too, after a fashion. It's not so much your standard documentary as it is a travelogue of Ellroy's dark places, from the gritty El Monte alleyway where his mother's nude corpse was found when the author was 10 years old to the well-trimmed suburban lawn where the bisected carcass of Elizabeth Short -- The Black Dahlia -- was discovered, setting off the largest manhunt in LAPD history. In between, Ellroy dissects his earlier novels, explores his freaky childhood haunts (cruising through a posh section of L.A. in his powder-blue Caddy he gestures towards a house and comments that he “must have broke in there I don't know how many times, back when B&E was easy”), and ruminates on the nature of what he does and why he's become a Raymond Chandler for the new age. In between, Jud inserts long passages of HelL.A. life, shots of winos sprawled comatose in storefronts, hookers milling about Chevy station wagons, and everywhere, the omnipresent LAPD cruisers and the thick, burly officers rousting vagrants and bums. Not surprisingly, Ellroy appears and speaks as he writes. He resembles an aging insurance salesman with vanishing hair more than a bestselling writer, but no salesman in his right mind would ever shroud himself in that many flavors of bad Hawaiian print shirts. His voice is clipped, precise, gravelly, and he's given to speaking in the sentence-fragment stream of consciousness style that makes up his best work. His penchant for bizarre, gutter poetry is on display at a local booksigning, where he inscribes each novel with an original, nasty rhyme, and, later, this self-described “demon dog” sits on the beach, howling like a lunatic. Is he mad? My Dark Places, which chronicles his obsessive search for his mother's murderer 40 years after the fact leads one to believe that certainly Ellroy is not your average bear. He's been marked by a life growing up in the shadow of some of L.A.'s most seedy, spiritually strip-mined areas, and that arcane Forties and Fifties pop culture mélange that makes up the bulk of his novels -- “white male rage,” he calls it -- dogs him in real life as well. Like a Fifties grifter propelled forward in time, he drops words and phrases like “dig it,” “groovy,” and “daddy-o” like other people say “you know.” It's a portrait of the writer as a young hepcat, huffing Benzedrine, sniffing panties, and then finally settling down to either die or write. Thankfully for us, he learned to write.