James Ellroy: American Dog

"Weak"

James Ellroy: American Dog Review


Stalking around 21st century Los Angeles for the documentary American Dog in his driver's cap and Hawaiian shirt, crime novelist and professional obsessive James Ellroy looks at first like some retiree trying to find the closest Denny's. But then there's that look behind those glasses and above the slightly Hitlerian mustache, eyes that don't blink quite often enough, can't seem to look away. Even if they wanted. Then there's his voice, that flat and monotonous drone, spooling out the fixations and a constant cinematic loop of psychosexual pathology. His stories are almost all variations on the same themes of secrecy, desire, repression, ultra-violence, and dangerous obsessions; mostly delivered right at the camera with a con man's brio. He's telling way more truth than he should and lying through his teeth, all in the same sentence. What quickly becomes clear is that Ellroy is an extraordinarily disturbed man, which is part of what makes his fiction so unhealthily enthralling and what makes him so hard to stomach as a documentary subject.

By letting Ellroy essentially take over their film, directors Clara and Robert Kuperberg abandoned themselves to his obsessive compulsive personality and so lost the necessary authorial perspective needed to make this into anything more than a glorified Ellroy vanity project. The structure is haphazard in the extreme, covering most of the same ground and themes that he has in his writing, particularly My Dark Places. In that memoir, Ellroy told of how he went back to his hometown of LA after years of living away in order to try and solve his mother's murder. The event that (as he would have it) formed his life happened in 1958, when he was only 10 years old. In his percolating and already crime-obsessed mind, the death became inextricably intertwined with the unsolved Black Dahlia murder, lodging a troubling Oedipal complex in his psyche at a young age. As Ellroy has it in the film, he not long after turned into something of a creep, prowling his neighborhood and peeping in windows, before turning to petty crime and drugs. Eventually the obsession paid off in a series of increasingly popular and convoluted LA noir novels like L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia (in which his fictional characters solve the crime) that redefined the genre.

What is utterly enthralling on the printed page, though, is far from engaging in this surprisingly dull film, which sets up a potentially interesting meeting between Ellroy and Bruce Wagner, an LA novelist with an apposite approach but similarly obsessed manner, and goes nowhere with it. Compatriots of Ellroy's (LAPD chief William Bratton, retired homicide detective Bill Stoner, who helped Ellroy on his mother's case) occasionally pop in to talk about him, his writing, and the obsessions that fuel both. Then it's back to the author and his compulsively overwrought narration, constantly revisiting the same themes (voyeurism, sex, obsession, corruption) and driving them into the ground.

American Dog ends with Ellroy reading from the last lines of his novels, all suffused with a similar tough-guy tragic effect. While it's an appropriate conclusion, all this really does is highlight the inadequacies of the preceding film in appreciating the work of this gifted, odd man.



Facts and Figures

In Theaters: Thursday 26th July 2007

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Clara Kuperberg, Robert Kuperberg

Producer: Clara Kuperberg, Robert Kuperberg

Starring: James Ellroy as Himself

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