Thursday, January 19, 2006

Noir City 2: James Ellroy

On Sunday the 15th, the 4th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival had a special guest, the author James Ellroy.

After being introduced by Eddie Muller, the host/oganizer of the festival, Ellroy proceeded to recite the title of every one of his published "masterpieces" in a virtuoso display of memory and oratorical skill while rocking back and forth on his feet.

I thought he must be drunk and/or coked up, but finally remembered that he had stopped drinking altogether in 1975. As recounted in his short memoir, "My Dark Places," he thereupon became a "swinger" sex addict for a while in Los Angeles with many of his fellow AA participants.

Ellroy told the audience about his shameful first trip to San Francisco. "I was 23 years old in LA and got really, really drunk with some friends and the next thing I remembered, I was waking up naked in a bed with a 300 pound woman. When I put on my pants, there was a wad of cash which hadn't been there before. I ran out the front door and found out that I was on Fell Street in the lower Haight. I'd never even been to San Francisco before. At least I can be thankful it wasn't a 300 pound guy."

Ellroy introduced a 1953 noir film "Split Second," which he claimed was his third choice when Eddie asked him for a selection. "It's pretty lackluster," he said, "but it's fascinating in its own way, especially since nobody at the time knew anything about the half-life of atomic bombs."

Even though the print was terrible, the movie was fascinating, with a group of hostages taken to an atomic bomb testing site by a mad-dog killer who had just broken out of prison. To add to the weirdness, the movie was directed by Dick Powell and stars Alexis Smith as a good girl who's really a bad girl, along with Jan Sterling who's a bad girl who's really a good girl. Plus, there's an atomic explosion used for cheesy suspense, so what more can you ask for?

Ellroy came back onstage for a stand-up interview with Eddie after the film, and he was simply extraordinary. His brain is very dark, quick and funny, and he has an unusual ability to speak in full sentences
on the fly that are a pleasure to listen to.

Early in the interview, Ellroy stated "Film noir is dead," which set Eddie back for a moment since he's dedicated most of his life to the genre, and at this year's festival has even tried to expand the "noir" label to include "proto-noir" films like Ben Hecht's 1934 "Crime Without Passion" and "post-noir" films like Sean Penn's directorial effort, "The Pledge."

"It's dead, Eddie. You can dress up in your suits and fedoras and so on, but film noir died in 1959 and it's over. Get used to it."

After announcing the news that Ellroy was moving from Kansas City, where he's been living for the last decade, and moving to San Francisco in February, they opened the questions up to the public. One woman asked, "I've read most of your work, and knowing it, I can't imagine why on earth you'd be moving to San Francisco." His response was classic, uttered almost tragically as if he were in a "noir" film himself. "A woman," and then he hung his head.

I asked him if he was going to include the Bush family in the third installment of his "Underworld USA" trilogy which started in 1995 with "American Tabloid" and continued in 2001 with the publication of "The Cold Six Thousand." The final installment is supposedly arriving within the year. They are a brilliant take on American history from 1958 to 1973 told from the point of view of "bad men" who are variously in the employment of Howard Hughes, the CIA, the FBI and organized crime. Even though the books are excruciatingly violent and profane, I can't recommend them highly enough. As the London Sunday Telegraph wrote: "One emerges breathless, shaken, and ready to change one's view of recent American history."

Ellroy's answer to my Bush question was "No, I can't use them. They're still alive, which would mean defaming them. Which is a real shame. The next book goes up to 1973 and unfortunately G. Gordon Liddy's still alive. What a character that fucker would make!" Somebody else asked him if Bruce Willis was still going to make an HBO series out of the books, and Ellroy answered, "HBO can humanize a group of Italian thugs in New Jersey, but asking them to do a 25-hour series humanizing a group of thugs who ended up assassinating the Kennedys was just too much for them, Bruce Willis notwithstanding."

There are a couple of Ellroy fan websites that are amusing and have more information on the writer: click here and here.

Here's an excerpt from his one-page introduction to "American Tabloid":

America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. We can't ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can't lose what you lacked at conception.

Jack Kennedy got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It's time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.

They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.

It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.

Here's to them.


Anonymous said...

great post.
i'll check come you did'nt invite me to go see him?

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,
I so enjoy your blog.
Your description and photos of James Ellroy helped me crystallize my impression of him..he is a living, breathing R. Crumb character.

Miss Chris