Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Real-life Noir: A Master Exposes the Seamy Underbelly


An impressionable young boy, later haunted in adulthood by one simple, rather ordinary act committed as a ten-year-old child... that of wishing his own mother dead. It was a wish--a curse, really--which all-too-soon would come tragically true, when the mother was found strangled to death.
Years of unhappiness and uncertainty followed, as the boy struggled to make sense out of the horrific event he was secretly sure he’d somehow caused...

An endless search for something, anything, to give some meaning to the inexplicable event or to mask the pain... 
The inexorable, downward spiral into the welcoming arms of drugs and alcohol, and finally to crime-- breaking & entering, peeping at windows; sinking ever deeper into a pit of despair and depravity...
It could be fodder for a story about a serial killer in the making (or about someone who “went postal”, turned to religion, or earned a stay in a fine correctional facility, with complimentary orange jumpsuit included). Instead, it’s all part of a tale plucked straight out of the pages of acclaimed author James Ellroy’s own personal history book, and is the focus of “James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons”, the first episode in a brand-new, six-part series about the City of (fallen) Angels--as seen through the eyes of native son Ellroy--airing on the Investigation Discovery channel starting this week.  
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Ellroy, of course, specializes in crime stories--those of murdered women, more precisely. And, as he intones during “City of Demons”, the reason for that is simple; “Dead women own me,” he repeats, over and over again. 
It is an ominous statement which seems eerily pertinent, for his career--at least since he sobered up in the late ‘70s--has revolved around writing about women who've died at the hands of others, all well before their time. His is not a fascination based on mere titillation or chosen as a way to make a quick buck, though, and it soon becomes apparent how deeply Ellroy’s interest in the subject matter lies; it is his lifelong passion.


Beginning with the details of his mother’s murder--his feelings, what he remembers, and how his life changed from that point on--Ellroy then moves on to explain the other key ingredient in the formation of his obsession with murdered women... his exposure, only several months after his mother’s death, to a book which luridly recounted in graphic detail an earlier L.A. murder, the notorious Black Dahlia case.
According to Ellroy, the two unsolved cases--his mother’s strangulation and the grotesquely-violent, misogynistic murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth "Betty" Short (aka the Black Dahlia) more than a decade earlier--became irrevocably intertwined in his mind. The younger woman’s death achieved a near-mystical symbolism to the eleven-year-old James, vividly illustrating, to him, just how vulnerable women really are. 
“Kiddy-noir obsession... or spiritual quest?”, he asks somewhat wryly. (It is a question he never really answers; rather, it’s something he tosses out there to percolate in viewers’ minds.) 
More than thirty-five years would elapse before Ellroy at last recognized his long-time obsession for what it had become: his mission, of listening to dead women and telling their tales to the world. (The rest, as they say, is history, as he goes on to pen such bestsellers as L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia.) 
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“City of Demons” offers a fascinating look into a strange and brilliant man’s psyche--a little stroll down the dark, demented side of his soul, as he discusses four murder cases which have particularly affected him. Ellroy is a creepy narrator/tour guide throughout, emphatically melodramatic in his delivery one moment and flatly monotone the next. He is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from, his bespectacled eyes full of a grim reality (tempered by a soupçon of mischievousness) as he paints a picture of a very gritty L.A.--one far-removed from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, but which is, instead, a place forever tarnished by malevolence, mayhem, and murder. 
“James Ellroy’s L.A.” premieres Wednesday, January 19 at 10pm ET/PT on Investigation Discovery... and it's must-see TV for all my fellow crime/thriller/mystery afficionados out there! :)