Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Unbearable Violence of James Ellroy

One of the benefits/quirks of my current relationship is that when we engage in shared media consumption (i.e. watching shit) it causes me to call into question why exactly it is that I am so all right with seeing people die on-camera. We were watching L.A. Confidential the other night and mid-way through there's a montage, complete with Danny DeVito narration, of a bunch of mobsters being gunned down.  The movie, like any proper Ellroy adaptation, has what might be charitably described as an excessively high body count (Ellroy's patented three-narrator perspective might be viewed as a necessity, coming as it does from an author who might, were he to limit himself to two narrators, or even one, end up killing them before the book even ended.  This reads like a joke but it literally almost happened in Blood's a Rover, a book where he had to bring in new P.O.V. characters mid-way through because so many of them had died).  This caused me, at one point, to remark, somewhat sheepishly (for it was I who had selected the evening's entertainment), "I forgot how many people die in this movie."  Which was true.

Are these cheekbones capable of murder? (yes)

I really don't think about it when I'm watching a movie like that, by which I really mean, 'a movie.'  Someone is introduced, called a drug dealer or whatever those guys were by DeVito, and gets shot up.  It's exposition, or at least I read it as such, because exposure to the kind of noir/crime/war narratives that turn my emotional cranks live and die (pun you-had-better-believe intended) on a body count.  It's not that I think murder is something to be taken lightly or that it doesn't have a cost; L.A. Confidential is a movie in part about that cost.  Guy Pearce's Ed Exley is posed a series of questions at the beginning of the movie, the last of which is, "Are you willing to shoot a man in the back because you know he'll go free if you don't?" or something to that effect.  Exley says no, and yet by the end of the movie he does just that, and while in the moment we know that he's justified and might even cheer him, that doesn't mean that it's without cost.

This is the route by which I come to a justification of Ellroy's body counts and casual, endemic violence, a violence that seeps into his language itself (Ellroy's prose reads kind of like Hemingway's might have if, say, Hemingway's mother had been murdered when he was young and his murderer were never caught, giving rise to such novels as The Sun Never Rises and A Farewell to Everything).  The prose is exceedingly spare, especially once one moves out of the L.A. Quartet and into the Horrible People Plan Assassinations of Beloved Public Figures trilogy.  The violence is never really lovingly detailed, but the language is so sparse that your imagination is already working overtime to fill in the blanks of things like, "He palled with Wayne. He palled with the cat. He spot-checked Monarch. He drooled. He called Fred Otash. He called his cop pals. They ran bulletin checks."  Then picture what your brain does with this:

"Nestor dragged the bodies down to a tide pool. Boyd brought the chainsaw.
Pete yank-started it. Boyd spread the stiffs out for cutting.
The moon passed by low. Nestor supplied extra light.
Pete sawed from a crouch. The teeth caught on a leg bone straight off.
Nestor pulled the man's foot taut. The teeth whirred through easy.
Pete sawed through a string of arms. The saw kept bucking into the sand. Skin and gristle pop-pop-popped in his face."

 The passage continues in this vein (again, pun intended).  This is from American Tabloid, the contents of which could serve as a serviceable alternate definition for the word, 'bleak.'  It, and the two novels which succeed it, deal with the events of the turbulent assassinations that rocked the country during the sixties and seventies.  They don't center on the men who ordered them, but the men who carry out those orders, men who live violent lives and do violent things.  And, somewhat circuitously, I come to the question of why write stuff like this at all.  Out of context it almost seems like gore porn, which is not something I'm advocating.

For me it comes back to cost.  The men in the American Underworld trilogy pay a high price to live the lives they lead; not only do they generally lose their lives, but they lose much of what is dear to them in the process of serving powerful, amoral men (the gender, not to mention racial, politics of Ellroy is a different issue entirely).  Of the three protagonists of American Tabloid, one man dies at the hands of his former partner and friend, another takes his own life, and the third nearly dies of a brain tumor before escaping The Life, as he calls it.  The narrators who are introduced to replace them suffer a similar rate of attrition.  The message is not, "Maybe you guys should not have helped the Mafia assassinate the president," which admittedly are good words to live by.  The message is that the central characters allow their hatreds and their demons to rule them, to let them commit acts most of us would find reprehensible, to sacrifice greater good for personal gain, to sublimate the superego to the id and nearly to a man they pay the price while those who bought their souls go untouched.  The violence and the death heighten the circumstances.

A polarizing president, his justice-seeking brother, and the country's foremost advocate for peace and racial solidarity were publicly cut down, one after the other, by those who had the darkest of motives.  You try to tell that story without a body count.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, and filled with intelligent insights. Overall, though, I think this is sort of high-level rationalization for what might best be characterized as a "guilty pleasure." I'm not certain that the "personal cost" outweighs the violence, or the effect the violence has on the viewer. That said, I really think that a film like Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire" is brilliant for exactly the same reasons -- the moral development of the central character.