Judge Kristin Munson finds a feast of death less filling than a morbid buffet. It also requires more wet-naps.
"Closure is bullshit."—James Ellroy
James Ellroy is the author of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia and an all-around cool cat. How else can you describe a man who opens public speaking engagements with "Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty sniffers, punks, and pimps"? Ellroy is notorious for speaking his mind, for not mincing his words, and for his perverse sense of humor. In Feast of Death, the cameras follow Ellroy everywhere from a book signing, to the family cemetery, to the sites of all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, and frames his life around the two defining crimes in it: the murders of his mother and Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.
James Ellroy's Feast of Death is a feisty oddity for a specific crowd; you have to know just enough about James Ellroy for the sparse narrative to make sense but not so much that everything here is a rehash. The main problem with this documentary is that it moves tangentially from scene to scene with no hint of connection or narrative flow. The opening makes passing mention of his mother's murder and then moves on to the unsolved slaying of an unnamed woman. Not until 30 minutes later, after several vaguely related scenes, does the program explicitly visit the subject. Excerpts from Ellroy's books provide the only narration, making the movie feel like a stream of consciousness journey through Ellroy's life rather than a constructed framework, and his head is one of the last places you want to be left alone in the dark.
Luckily, it's easy to weather the confusing storyline when James Ellroy is within microphone distance. The man wields words like a hepcat with a scalpel, sharp, cool, and darkly shocking. The long wait for the strands to come together with some kind of cohesive payoff (No such luck), or at least get to the box's promised Dahlia case analysis, is bolstered by the ornery Ellroy and the well-worn patter he puts on for the people who eat up every hard-boiled word of his books.
The film is not rated but contains many crime scene photos, including gruesome shots of Elizabeth Short both at the dump site and on the coroner's table, and a whole lotta cussing. It was also made in 2001, so much of the information presented is past its sell-by date. Ellroy's super cool feminist wife is now his ex, and there have been new Dahlia theories by the dozen, one of which Ellroy has endorsed, despite claiming the theory here is the definitive one. Ellroy has stated he would no longer speak publicly about the Black Dahlia case and that the last word on his mother's murder would be the episode of Murder by the Book he made with CourtTV, so the disc is one of the few places you can hear Ellroy take on the subject in his own words.
Feast of Death is presented in a soft, somewhat faded-looking widescreen picture with a basic but solid 2.0 stereo mix. The lack of extras is an oddity, considering the sheer amount of footage that goes unused in any documentary. There are no deleted scenes from the bookstore Q&A or the dinner with Los Angeles crime journalists and investigators, no new Ellroy interview, nothing. There may not be much here to entice Ellroy buffs into a purchase, but for novices, it offers an intriguing, if fragmented, glimpse into the man's mind.
There's an easy way to test whether the subject is to your tastes. Simply read the following James Ellroy's Feast of Death film quote: "If the Kennedys protested everything that was written about them, they'd be in court all day, every day, and they'd have no time to get drunk and rape women."
If that sort of thing offends you, the documentary is 90 minutes of the same and there's nothing here for you. If not, by all means, come sit by me.
The filmmakers are guilty of giving a spellbinding subject the short shrift.
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