By Claudia Siefen-Leitich
“James Ellroy opens the film with a tour of Los Angeles, pointing out locations that are important to him and his work. First he sits in the park, you can see him from behind in the first picture, then he drives in his car, and finally he walks along the beach of Santa Monica in front of the waves. This way you can develop a feeling for him and his city. It was designed in such a way that he gradually becomes more into physical action. The way he stretches his arms in the park, the way he turns his upper body while driving, his sweeping gestures and the energetic walk he creates space for himself, on the scene and in the film, and we follow him. In establishing the location of the Black Dahlia, he walks towards the camera, there it is concretely about the spot on the ground, at the end of the film he moves away, this is his farewell. In the way he moves, as if there were no boundaries, I became very sympathetic to him.“
Reinhard Jud on his documentary
In the early 1950s, Los Angeles’s noir reputation, whether justified or merely invented, began to fade slowly. The city developed, dozens of suburbs, constantly in search of a centre, froze in a labyrinth of concrete, surrounded by thousands of kilometres of motorway. The huge post-war population flooded the Southlands, filling them with prefabricated houses and gigantic shopping centres. The empty city centre and a new generation of police chiefs softened the crimes of the past decades. The „big“ gangsters moved to Las Vegas, where the climate for criminals was even more pleasant than in L.A., and in the early 1960s Los Angeles was no longer seen as the rotten, crime-ridden Moloch. Slowly the “happy-go-lucky hippie” and “surfer image” gained the upper hand. The L.A. Noir of the 40s and 50s only lives on in films like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential and is preserved in the books of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. Or James Ellroy.
Los Angeles is a city that constantly depends on the grace of nature. It now has more than ten million inhabitants and is constantly threatened by earthquakes, floods, water shortages and fire, which in turn creates the feeling of living permanently on the brink of disaster. The ever-present danger of natural disasters creates an atmosphere of transience. Built on the San Andreas Fault, the most immediate danger is probably its unstable geology, but even if the asphalt on one of the eight-lane urban motorways suddenly bursts open due to earth movements, traffic continues to flow as if nothing had happened. Earthquakes are an everyday phenomenon, as are landslides, which simply “tumble” hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hillside houses into Topanga or Mandeville Canyon.
One can see a connection between the sensitive ecological system of Los Angeles and its disastrous approach to environmental protection and society. We see a city that architects, planners and politicians are deliberately exposing to an unavoidable future catastrophe. Those novels, predominantly racially and xenophobically decomposed penny dreadfuls, outnumber by far the crime noir novels as a regional genre. This may be taken as an indication of the deep-rooted fear of disaster among the inhabitants of Los Angeles.
But even when it is not literally burning, subtropical Los Angeles is constantly at the mercy of the heat. So one can interpret that the aggressive heat may have led to the fact that the cradle of „noir“ is in Los Angeles. After the classical period of the forties and fifties, “noir“ suddenly discovered the bright day for itself. While the classic films were still mostly set in the sometimes very sultry night, scenes in daylight, and thus in glaring sunlight, are already taking over. The classic noir concentrated on Los Angeles, but the more developed noir also looked for new centres, such as Las Vegas. However, the typical “noir ingredients” remained.
Well, “noir“ as reflection of reality? Well, the city of Los Angeles that most new arrivals found was unlike any place they had ever seen. There was the physical beauty of the mountains, the beaches and the agricultural plains, which were just a stone’s throw away from slums and depraved suburbs populated by a wild, polyglot mix of all races and concreted over with randomly pieced together architecture. There was the dream factory, Hollywood and the Beverly Hills, elegant mansions, film premieres and exclusive nightclubs. There were stars, crazy people, strange religious groups and cemeteries for pets, too.
“The opening title “Nightmare” by Artie Shaw is based on the idea of Helen Knode, Ellroy’s wife at the time. He suggested it during a preparatory conversation in a hotel bar. The number was a bull’s eye because it atmospherically summed up everything it was all about. That also matched the title of his current novel “White Jazz”. “Green Door” was chosen because of the second part of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy “Because the Night”: a crazy psychiatrist uses the term for his therapy of crossing borders. When we didn’t get the rights for the desired interpretation of the Cramps, cameraman Wolfgang Lehner recorded it with his band and sang it himself. Anton Bruckner’s symphony has to do with Ellroy’s love of classical music, we were looking for something dramatic to show how he dreams himself into his material. The score is based on the fact that the intended composer did not want to accept the commission and delivered old tapes from his archive with a lot of fuss. There was only one weekend left, so I suggested drums. The musician was familiar with Ellroy’s novels, he then recorded military drums, more ponderous police drums, which he called “beer-bellied”, and a dragged nightclub groove. At the end he added a R`n`B organ, which reminded me of the radio music we heard while shooting.” Reinhard Jud on his documentary
The floods, fires, earthquakes and the drought constantly reminded the inhabitants that nothing was for eternity and that the city they lived in could be destroyed from one minute to the next. The lack of history, but also the possibility to leave everything behind and start all over again, to experiment and reinvent, attracted people from all parts of the continent like a magnet to Los Angeles. In an environment and atmosphere like this, there was, of course, crime, as in any big city. The difference was probably that in L.A. everything was a little bit bigger, but also more glamorous: prostitution, gambling and drugs offered a wide field of activity to both, criminals and the police. All of this was filtered through paper and pencil, or celluloid, and finally became “L.A. Noir.“
One can probably sum up that the roots of the classic film noir were largely to be found in hard-boiled literature, German expressionism, the growing interest in psychoanalysis and American post-war paranoia. Against this background, the themes remained relatively limited and concentrated mainly on the thriller and psychodrama. In the Neo-Noir, however, a few more themes were added. Although one can recognise in the new/old genre a cynicism that has been intensified by forty years of Cold War, financial crises and sexual revolution, these also determine that especially the Neo-noir strongly emphasises a motif of classical Noir, namely the search for love and honour in a society that is only interested in money and sex.
The novels of James Ellroy differ from other noir works in that they function exclusively in Los Angeles. It is not only about the nature of man, but also about the nature of that man who was devoured and spat out again by the Moloch L.A: The literary treatment serves to reappraise their personal history. Ellroy also has what one might call a “disturbed relationship” with Los Angeles and in one way or another became a victim of the “monster” Los Angeles himself.
“It was important for me to stay in one part of the city and capture the atmosphere instead of hanging pictures together at will. To establish Hollywood by day, I decided to park in a large backyard. The Arroyo High School in El Monte, where Ellroy’s murdered mother was found, was classic American school with a running track, baseball field and old billboards, nothing has changed for forty years. I found the Western Hotel, where he lived during his time as an alcoholic, exciting! It reminded me of a dying elephant, in the middle of a district that had meanwhile been transformed into so called Koreatown. There are three stylistic levels in the shooting: one was the disorientated gaze, a tearing of the camera, which gets stuck on signals, continues to search, is switched off for fractions of a second to create jumps. One has to imagine this as a milling into reality. Then the pavement perspective with sober images related to the action, and finally static, monumental images with the last remains of old Los Angeles, Art Deco buildings, Griffith Park and the observatory in the hills. For the shots from the side of the road and from the car we had a light, unflashed Arri camera, with which one could unobtrusively shoot from the hand. For the night shots we used light sensitive Fuji 500 material. With that one we shot the police operations, some activities at bars and motels, the cruising on Hollywood Boulevard. We got very close to the events.” Reinhard Jud on his documentary
James Ellroy seems to be a perfect example for the fact that L.A. Noir authors are strongly influenced by the city itself. Ellroy was born in L.A. and he grew up in L.A. – he lived through a real noir fate and from a distance he embodies the classic noir hero himself, who is shaken by an inescapable fate and tries to overcome his inner demons. In Ellroy’s work this takes the form of literary reappraisal. In 1958 his mother (Geneva Hilliker, who later called herself Jean Ellroy) was murdered in El Monte, where the single mother and her ten-year-old son James had moved to. His mother’s murder was never resolved and was a traumatic experience that almost threw him off track. He dealt with this experience in his book My Dark Places, which he subtitled An L.A. Crime Memoir. He describes his youth as well as his attempts to track down his mother’s murderer with the help of a private detective – unsuccessfully – but still on the trail of his mother’s killer.
In his documentary film Reinhard Jud brings up the use of space in an exciting way. And, of course, this use of space by an author is completely different from that of a filmmaker and screenwriter. One can speak of losses and disturbances, read about them and even see them here. But it becomes exciting how such „losses“ are brought to a rhythm. How these creative methods address Ellroy’s huge physicality on the one hand, but how one must be willing to “see” and also to “read” those here on the other hand. And in all that physical work you are still able to see about Ellroy and his very own „illusion“, paired with a careful dynamic of the director.
Thanks to film director & script consultant Reinhard Jud; and Florian Widegger (Film Archive Austria).
James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction
Director: Reinhard Jud
Script: Reinhard Jud, Wolfgang Lehner
Cinematography: Wolfgang Lehner
Editing: Karina Ressler
Sound: Sam Auinger
Voice: Phil Tintne
Music: Deedee Neidhart, Sam Auinger
Interview: Pamela Russmann
Producer: Markus Fischer / Fischerfilm
1h31min / 16mm /1994