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James Ellroy’s Lonely Places: a Retrospective

December 5, 2018

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

Rude awakenings and abrupt, violent endings are all too common in noir.

In July 2018, James Ellroy announced via his official website that he had abruptly ended his award-winning Denver film series In a Lonely Place at the Alamo DrafthouseIn a coldly monochromatic post that implied a possible rift with the Alamo’s senior management, the Demon Dog explicitly thanked the fans who faithfully attended his film screenings, and the legendary Q&A sessions in the bar afterwards.

It had to end at some point, but this was not the denouement I was hoping for.  I had imagined a ceremonial grand sendoff and perhaps one final film before Ellroy departed for his world tour in support of This Storm. (Ellroy had in fact spoken of hosting a release party for his new novel at the Alamo just before throwing the kill switch).  However, Ellroy’s abrupt termination shouldn’t surprise me, as none of Ellroy’s novels (with the possible exception of L.A. Confidential) end on a uniform note; their author a fierce opponent of any kind of closure. Also, a painful awareness that life rarely—if ever—makes rational sense, is one of noir’s foundational principles.

The Demon Dog’s film series was certainly not his first ongoing event, but it was likely his longest. Just a few years before his 2015 move to Denver, Ellroy spent some weeks hosting night-cloaked bus tours of L.A.’s mean streets while telling wretchedly entertaining tales of Tinseltown’s seedy past.  By the time Ellroy severed his ties with the Alamo, his Denver film series was just months away from its third anniversary.

Seeing Ellroy at the Alamo each month afforded an unparalleled view of the staggeringly busy itinerary of an author with a worldwide following, as he jaunted around the globe from one literary event to the next—Barcelona to Brussels to Turin, L.A., New York and his beloved France— while never missing his faithful monthly perch at Denver’s Alamo Drafthouse.

As we look back across the unforgettable wake of Ellroy’s iconic film series and deeply ponder the role of film noir, it’s only appropriate to do so alongside the real life violence which no silver screen can contain… Ellroy, who has told us his violent art reflects our violent contemporaneous reality, would have it no other way.

Ellroy began his series in September, 2015 with Curtis Hanson’s Academy Award winning take on the Demon Dog’s L.A. Confidential.  The film streamlined Ellroy’s byzantine novel, excising several key subplots, but retaining Ellroy’s obsessive focus on verisimilitude and, especially, the soul-crushing price exacted by maintaining such a disingenuous performance. Ellroy would screen L.A. Confidential at the Alamo a second time in December, 2017 in recognition of the film’s 20th anniversary.  Oddly enough, both occasions boasted the largest crowds in the series’ history.

In October 2015, 10 people were shot dead by a 26 year old at a community college in southern Oregon. The shooter, who had an extensive history of mental illness and a steady diet of hate-fueled indoctrination, would later die in an exchange of fire with the police.

Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low, adapted from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novel King’s Ransom, gave us the moral dilemma of a powerful corporate executive facing financial ruin.  The executive is forced to determine the value of someone else’s life, a life with which has no bearing on his own.  High & Low’s exceptional juxtaposing of the economic extremes of society, reminded me of a similar technique Fritz Lang employed in Metropolis, which, incidentally, is a film the Demon Dog roundly despises, finding it too dystopian.

   

In November 2015, a police officer and two civilians were killed and nine others wounded when a 60-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a history of spousal abuse and infidelities opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a devastating meditation on obsession, follows an obsessive detective as he transforms a woman into a duplicate of a dead woman who is the object of his obsession. The film covers territory Ellroy would explore at length in the L.A. Quartet. In conversation with the Demon Dog after the film, Ellroy told me Vertigo was the last film he saw before his mother was murdered.

Male domination of women is a constant feature in noir, with the callous nature of the famous femme fatale an appropriate counterpoint to jilted men who act befuddled when the dame betrays them. It’s a man’s world, and men make the money, often shamelessly trampling women in the process. In fact, noir’s men treat women as abundantly disposable and wilfully interchangeable commodities; bitterly clarifying noir’s statement that weaponized sex is often a femme fatale’s only option for economic advancement.  You can thus understand the man-maiming actions of the women in Ellroy’s selection of Edmund O’Brien’s Man Trap and Ken Hughes’ Wicked as They Come.

In December 2015, an armed couple, both from troubled childhoods involving domestic abuse and violent childhood indoctrination, fired dozens of shots inside a San Bernardino conference hall at a service center for people with disabilities, leaving 14 dead. Both shooters died in an exchange of fire with police later the same day.

Occasionally, Ellroy would present a film with no relation to the noir universe. Such is the case with Gordon Douglas’ THEM!, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Band of Outsiders, and even Robert Altman’s Nashville, a sprawling, interlocking 1975 masterpiece that explores the dynamics between nearly 30 characters across a timespan of only five days. Ellroy wouldn’t confirm this, but I had to wonder if Nashville wasn’t the Demon Dog’s inspiration for Perfidia’s micro history format. Nonetheless, Ellroy anointed Nashville as nothing less than “The great American motion picture,” feeling that it depicted America far more accurately than an over-lauded film like Citizen Kane. Barely a year after Nashville, Ellroy would also go on to screen The Long Goodbye, Altman’s 1973 noir-tinged paean to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

In June 2016, 49 people were killed at an Orlando nightclub by a 29 year old with a years-long penchant for violence and depravity, a propensity fueled by dismissive parents and endless bullying.

Film noir often illuminates the dark underbelly of a city, concealing faceless terrors waiting to attack you at any moment. This is the grim setting for Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror, featuring a heroine that paradoxically is most vulnerable in her own home. Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, which Ellroy screened as part of Noir City Denver, also explored this territory.  At the core of these films is anxiety, which noir views as more useful than the complacency proffered by streamlined Hollywood productions with disingenuously uniform happy endings. A prime directive in noir is to shock the public out of stasis, and expose just how thin the veneer of society really is…  In this way, noir helped people accept the insane randomness and unpredictability of life. (Take THAT, American self-confidence!)

Noir’s characters are often pushed around by forces larger than themselves, and are beholden to a clandestine and ruthless bureaucracy where conspiracies, beatings, murders, and brutal coercion are all business as usual.  The films also show people struggling hopelessly to escape a trap that, all too often, they themselves constructed.  Joseph Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive, and Byron Haskin’s I Walk Alone, fit this mold.  Complicating the matter even further, every noir character is also grappling with their own private grief.

In July 2016, five Dallas police officers were killed in a sniper attack during a public demonstration against fatal police shootings. The shooter, a delusional 25-year-old discharged soldier with PTSD and an extensive distrust of law enforcement, was killed by an explosive delivered to him by a remote controlled bomb disposal robot.

In a grim case of art mimicking life, Ellroy screened Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof, which, as expected, climaxes in a manner shockingly similar to the Dallas sniper attack. The 1976 Swedish police procedural was one of several foreign films Ellroy screened, in conspicuous appreciation for the Demon Dog’s enormous European audience. Ellroy has a particularly large following in France, something he respectfully acknowledged when he told us “The frogs are obsessed with American crime, and they know noir better than anyone else.”      

In October 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of more than 22,000 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring more than 500. The gunman would later die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The namesake film of Ellroy’s series, Nick Ray’s landmark 1950 noir In a Lonely Place, deftly showcased the quiet desperation of Hollywood, a disposable industry forced to reflect the wants and whims of a casually dismissive and lazy public. Brought to life by Humphrey Bogart’s stunning portrayal of the brooding and volatile Dixon Steele, the film asserts that the industry’s stifling of independent thought led many writers to greatly resent earning a Tinseltown paycheck, in spite of how enormous such salaries often were.

In November 2017, a 26-year-old with a history of animal cruelty and spousal abuse opened fire on a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25 people and an unborn child. The shooter died crashing his SUV after a high speed chase with police.

Many of the noirs Ellroy screened involved painfully ordinary people orchestrating elaborate heists as a way to level a mercilessly uneven economic playing field. Middle class characters bitterly view the rich as evil, while always trying to join their ranks…  The denial implicit within this contradiction is inescapably noir, as the middle class know that becoming an elite requires abandoning their fatuous bumper sticker virtues and capitulating to the soul-devouring machinations of a brutally heartless world. Yet, your past is never far from you, and ignoring this always sets the stage for disastrous consequences.

In February 2018, a former student with a history of behavioral issues that were ignored by educators and administrators opened fire in a Parkland, Florida high school, killing 17, and wounding 17 more.

The duration of Ellroy’s Denver film series also served as a kind of postscript, like those you might find at the conclusion to one of the Demon Dog’s quartets or trilogies. Several notable individuals from Ellroy’s past met their end concurrent with the tenure of the series…

L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson died on September 20th, 2016 at age 71. The previous evening, Ellroy screened Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place, and I mentioned to Ellroy how Hanson had showed the film to Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to prepare them for their roles in L.A. Confidential.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, a background figure in American Tabloid, died at 90 on November 25, 2016.  Cuba’s Castro era would effectively end almost 18 months later with the April, 2018 confirmation of Miguel Diaz-Canel as the country’s first non-Castro president since 1976.

Accordion virtuoso Dick Contino died on April 17, 2017 at age 87. Ellroy, who would make Contino the protagonist of one of the Demon Dog’s best novellas, (“Dick Contino’s Blues”) first discovered the legendary musician on television as a child, oddly parallel to how I would be introduced to Ellroy many years later. As an even stranger linkage to these events, I just happened to be sitting next to Ellroy when he and I both learned, on April 24, 2017, of Contino’s passing.  It seems rather appropriate that the film that evening was Jules Dassin’s 1955 French heist Rififi, which centers on a soundless (and yet oddly orchestral) heist, and later includes an obligatory catchy theme song to justify its title.    

Fats Domino, whose popular 1956 recording of “Blueberry Hill” was the inspiration for the title of Ellroy’s third Lloyd Hopkins novel, Suicide Hill, died on October 24, 2017, at 89. I asked Ellroy if he heard about Domino’s death, and he said no. Later, the Demon Dog signed my Suicide Hill hardcover “To Jason—Viva Fats Domino!”

Charles Manson, who appears briefly in Killer on the Road and whom Ellroy often references in his wild Demon Dog introductions (“These are books for the whole fucking family… if the name of your family is the Charles Manson Family!”), died from cardiac arrest on November 19, 2017 at 83.

In May 2018, a 17-year-old repeatedly bullied by both students and teachers, shot and killed 8 students and two teachers at a Sante Fe, Texas high school.  

Ellroy’s post film discussions were often my favorite component of the Demon Dog’s film screenings. Though Ellroy rarely watched the films with us, he was more than able to discuss each vividly, often telling hilarious anecdotes about the cast and crew. The conversation often zipped on and off the main theme rapidamente, as Ellroy told us of his associations with Hollywood elites and attendant hangers on, often punctuating his narrative with impromptu impressions of everyone from Harry Belafonte (“DAY-O!”) to Fred Otash (“rawrawraw-FAGSNIGGERSJEWS-rawrawraw!”).

I would often ask Ellroy about fellow writers, extracting even more stories about the Demon Dog’s encounters with book biz heavyweights Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Patricia Cornwell, among others.

At times, Ellroy was surrounded by more than 30 patrons, at other times the turnout for his series was so dismal, he angrily refused to meet with us afterwards. I hold the Alamo Drafthouse responsible for this. The Alamo unfortunately never did much to promote Ellroy’s series beyond a brief whisper on Facebook or a microscopic two line announcement in the Denver lefty rag Westword a far cry from how the theater dropped its pants whenever anything from Star Wars or Marvel Comics came to town.

Ellroy can come off as brash and rudely unpredictable to many people unaccustomed to his Demon Dog persona. Thus, on several occasions, he found himself amid a roomful of attendees scared shitless to ask him a question.  “Someone ask me a question!” he would taunt them, glancing menacingly around like a cornered beast.  Often, I would break the silence.

On one occasion, following Gordon Douglas’ THEM!, I was literally the only patron who stayed for Ellroy’s discussion.  I asked him that night if there were any silent films he liked.  “No,” he replied sharply.  “I hate reading subtitles…”  An intriguing statement given the numerous foreign films the Demon Dog introduced.  On that same evening, there were several teenagers in the bar’s opposite corner huddled together and totally preoccupied with their (stupid) smartphones. I remarked to Ellroy how astonishing it was that not one of them cared that a living literary legend was in the room.

Ellroy does not like to read or see published work about himself, and has nothing but contempt for anything Internet related. When you’re with him, you get the sense that the Demon Dog’s carefully constructed world of cultural creation is his most precious personal asset, evident by his ferociously overarching reaction to those who dare interrupt him. (“Brother! Brother! Brother! Lemme finish!”).

In what turned out to be the series’ final film, Don Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick follows a small time crook who robs a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, and later realizes the nondescript branch bank is really a drop site for mob money. With a Mafia hitman on his trail, the crafty Varrick frames the bank’s mobbed-up president and fakes his own death, eventually escaping with the money.  The film’s narrative and southwestern locale clearly served as an inspiration for Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which proceeds in nearly the same manner (though McCarthy’s version concludes with a far more haunting ambiguity).

Whether by chance or design, Ellroy—ever the mystic—ended his venerable series concurrent with the arrival of a summer blood moon… an event mystically associated with commencements and culminations.

Ellroy has since told me he’ll likely hold a 2019 release event for This Storm at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store.

 

Jason Carter

             

 

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    December 5, 2018 5:44 pm

    Great article as always. I was wondering why the series ended rather abruptly. I’ve been meaning to watch the film canon according to Ellroy, so appreciate the full list of movies that were shown the last few years.

  2. December 5, 2018 5:57 pm

    When did Ellroy move to Denver (and why?!)

    • December 5, 2018 7:10 pm

      Ellroy moved to Denver in August 2015 to reconcile with his second ex wife Helen Knode. She’s his best friend, and he can’t imagine life without her.

  3. Ludwig permalink
    December 6, 2018 1:59 pm

    Thank you, great stuff as always. I know Ellroy has no time for digital tools, but I wonder if he has been exposed to L.A. Noire, the video game that took more than a passing influence from his works. As a foreigner who never visited Los Angeles, I found the immersion in the city at the time his major books are set quite striking. Perhaps would he find some interest in it.

    • December 6, 2018 4:28 pm

      Ellroy does indeed know about the “L.A. Noir” video game, and its similarity to his work. For someone who actively ignores most of the contemporary culture, Ellroy is actually quite knowledgeable about such things today, and I would imagine his friends and colleagues in Hollywood and the publishing industry fill him in on these things.

      • Dan permalink
        December 6, 2018 9:39 pm

        Would love to hear more about the various topics you’ve discussed with Ellroy at these events, like the author encounters mentioned in the above article. “Conversations with Ellroy” sounds like a blast!

    • Dan permalink
      December 6, 2018 9:46 pm

      Just finished playing LA Noire for about the third time. There are definitely many specific Ellroy influences beyond the genre, location, and time period. I was in Hollywood in September and I can say the physical map in the game is very accurate.

      • December 6, 2018 11:54 pm

        No problem, Dan. I know Ellroy has crossed paths with many popular authors over the past 40 years, so I wanted to get his take on meeting them. While discussing writers with OCD, someone mentioned Louis L’Amour, and I said “Louie L’Amour isn’t even an understudy to the all time grand master of relentless literary output, and that is without question, Isaac Asimov…” Ellroy then said, “I actually met him [Asimov] in 1992, shortly before his death…” I know Stephen King has complimented Ellroy numerous times (most recently in a blurb for “Perfidia”), so I asked the Demon Dog what his first impression of King was upon meeting him… “Surprisingly approachable,” Ellroy said, implying that behind the hundreds of millions of dollars and worldwide fame, Stephen King is just a plain, simple guy from Maine… Most recently, in June of this year, the release of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” reminded me to ask Ellroy if he ever met Michael Crichton. “Oh yeah, I met him…” Ellroy said. “Tall motherfucker (6′ 9″ !!!) Great hair, but a very COLD man otherwise…” Ellroy said

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