The artist as panty sniffer

How the writer turns his worthless life to estimable art.

To paraphrase John Gardner, the true writer doesn't dream of modest success—he dreams only of glory. James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction tells the extraordinary story of how a loser alcoholic panty sniffer became the author of L.A. Confidential and other fever dreams of mid-century LA life. It also tells the story of Ellroy's dreams, which were never dreams of humility. "I wanted to be Tolstoy. I wanted to be Dostoevsky. I wanted to be Balzac. I wanted be all these guys that, y'know, frankly, I've never read."

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction

directed by Reinhard Jud

plays August 10-12 at the Varsity

This 1993 film, re-released after the success of the film L.A. Confidential, follows the writer around LA as he talks about his history, the history of his family, and the history of the city. Dressed in an array of Hawaiian shirts, his dark brown hair combed over his bald spot, his huge feet encased in Converse high-tops, Ellroy is a strange combination of hipster and dweeb. He drives past a seedy park: "I used to get drunk there, and read crime novels." He pauses. "Ten years of my life."

Director Reinhard Jud trips himself up with endless jump-cut montages of seedy LA nightlife that one can only guess he intends as an homage to Ellroy's staccato writing style. But why indulge in this kind of nonsense when just listening to the man is so riveting?

Watching Ellroy tell the story of his life is like watching someone turn shit to gold. You feel you're seeing the lifesaving essence of storytelling: Ellroy's personal history is so bleak that he had to turn it into a good yarn and tell it back to himself, or he would descend into total chaos. When he talks about his poverty, when he talks about his drinking and his years in fleabag hotels, and most of all when he talks about the brutal murder of his mother (which took place when he was 10), his speech is rendered in elegant, structured cadences and sentences that have clearly rung through his mind like cathedral bells for a long, long time. Standing at the site where his mother's body was discovered, he says simply: "The wrong man met the wrong woman at the wrong fucking time." But he goes on, looking around him: "There's that feeling here of true crime that is simultaneously horrific and pathetic."

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