The celebrated author of police stories and reigning expert on the 1940-1960 Los Angeles crime scene takes center stage in the eccentric and mannered James Ellroy: "American Dog", a glossy documentary that covers the same ground as Ellroy's autobiographical book My Dark Pages. Ellroy's life and career is a chronicle of obsessions that would give any film noir protagonist a run for his money. His mother was murdered when he was a child, an experience that, if the author is to be believed, determined the course of his life from that point onward.
This documentary-essay puts James Ellroy front and center, and he's an overpowering character. As a speaker he's simultaneously very articulate and very profane, an uncomfortable combination. His descriptions of his childhood discovery of a sleazy underside to everyday life are peppered with words that are, depending on one's point of view, either frank and accurate or offensively aggressive. His disclosures about his own checkered past carry an intense charge of noir romanticism. Ellroy may not be bragging about his nefarious life as a homeless peeping tom, but he's not contrite, either.
The show examines Ellroy's world and the mystique of Los Angeles as a place that beckons the ambitious and the foolhardy: "They come on vacation and leave on probation." Backward looks into history set up the twin homicides that formed Ellroy's young consciousness, the savage 1947 Black Dahlia killing and his own mother's murder in 1958. Somewhere along the line the subject of film noir enters. Ellroy partially linking it with his own work by saying that real detectives love the fantasy of Otto Preminger's Laura, wherein an investigator carries on a romance with a murder victim!
James Ellroy: "American Dog" follows its subject to various crime scenes and allows him to address the camera directly, narrating his own inner thoughts or reciting relevant passages from My Dark Pages and other books. Other speakers comment on the author in interviews staged in appropriate locales. Los Angeles Police Chief and Ellroy fan William Bratton stands in uniform before a bank of flags and praises the effect of Ellroy's books on the image of the LAPD. Retired detective William Stoner sits at the bar in the Frolic Room on Hollywood Blvd. to explain how Ellroy hired him to investigate his mother's murder 37 years after the fact. Actress Dana Delany tells us that Ellroy used her real name as a character in one of his books, a murder story about depraved lowlifes. Ellroy discusses his work with author Bruce Wagner but is mostly on screen by himself, ambling through the courtyard of the American Cinematheque (formerly the Egyptian Theater) or loitering around atmospheric downtown street corners. With his distinctive walk and Hawaiian shirts, Ellroy seems born to the neon and dark alleys.
Cameraman Neil Antin's stylish videography unifies the show with 'video-noir' lighting schemes. One speaker tells us of the anxieties of the Cold War while standing in what appears to be a property house specializing in neon signs. Dramatic musical selections from Vivaldi, Wagner and Stravinsky are used as atmospheric glue to tie disparate episodes together.
Writer-directors Clara and Robert Kuperberg only lose their footing near the end, when the show's various themes fail to come together. The docu wishes to recap Ellroy's excellent My Dark Places book in digest form, but the content just isn't there to dramatize Ellroy's change from hating his mother ("She was really just a whore') to accepting and loving her ("I learned the power of compassion"). The camera instead swoops over Los Angeles in search of spectacular aerial views to serve as wallpaper for Ellroy's mannered commentary. Ellroy's honesty is a lot like the testimony one of his characters might give. We keep asking ourselves why exactly he feels he must confess all these personal agonies.
Ellroy is fully aware that he's exploiting his tragic family history and he barely stops short of describing himself as a sick man. He need not apologize for his excellent books, as he's certainly a talented man. But after viewing James Ellroy: American Dog the fascinating writer of My Dark Places seems much less attractive. Ellroy and the Kuperberg show their awareness of this by placing a shot of Ellroy's dog Nikkle at the end of the show. Like Norman Bates speaking with the face of his dead mother, Nikkle 'speaks' with Ellroy's voice and warns the viewer that Ellroy is really a malicious exploiter and a terrible man. It's amusing, but the joke's on us.
Arte's DVD of James Ellroy: "American Dog" is an excellent presentation of a show with a beautiful look; the views of Los Angeles are a slick tour of a noir city. The audio is good and the music editorial excellent, with those classical pieces weaving in and out of Ellroy's edgy speeches. An extras menu leads to several interesting sidebar videos. Two dinner conversations with Ellroy and his friends (Rick Jackson, Bruce Wagner, Dana Delaney, Joe and Matthew Carnahan, Michelle Grace) at the Pacific Dining Car are followed by a 2005 reading of American Tabloid at the Hammer Museum by Ellroy, Bruce Wagner and Dana Delany. Ellroy is presented with the 'Jack Webb Award' by the LAPD, an honor that must have been a prelude to the film's interview with the oddly worshipful Chief Bratton. Galleries of vintage L.A. postcards, and gruesome crime scene photos finish the presentation.
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by Glenn Erickson