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He Searches for a Root Cause of His Family's Many Secrets

Movies: Eric Trules aims the camera at his uncle--a confessed murderer--and at his own brush with the law.

February 19, 1999|SAUL RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some relatives would have preferred he kept quiet, but Los Angeles poet and performance artist Eric Trules instead broadcasts some dark family secrets in his intensely personal documentary "The Poet and the Con." The film that he made came as something of a shock, not only to his family but to the filmmaker himself.

Trules, who teaches a popular class on creative expression at USC, took seven years to complete the film, opening a week's run today as part of a documentary series at the Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex. The film mainly explores Trules' relationship with his uncle Harvey Rosenberg, a career criminal and confessed murderer. Trules also reveals his own criminal wrongdoing on camera, and highlights a painful, bitter conversation he has with his parents. He even mentions in a voice-over that three of his aunts were prostitutes.

All of which had some relatives wondering why Trules would throw a public spotlight on such unflattering family matters. Because, he told them, it's art.

"I've found that in the most personal is the universal. By me having the courage or stupidity to reveal myself, I know that people will see themselves and their own family," Trules says.

Trules recognized many of his own traits when he studied his uncle, a convicted felon who served prison time for burglary, assault and narcotics violations. Trules' romanticizing of his outlaw uncle matched his view of himself as an iconoclastic artist.

"I had always felt close to my uncle and identified with him because he was the black sheep of the family," Trules says during a recent interview at his hilltop home in Silver Lake. "We used to play ball and joke around, and I looked up to him. He had more spirit and life and reality than most people I know."

Trules began working on "The Poet and the Con" in 1991, when his uncle had been released from prison to a recovery house in Los Angeles, and the pair began spending time together. Trules had shot and edited about 35 minutes of film by 1992, which included interviews with himself, his uncle and his parents, as well as Trules' spoken poetry. But Trules wasn't satisfied with the results. "I felt it was really flat. I said, 'I don't think it's a film,' " Trules recalls.

So he spent about a year trying unsuccessfully to raise money to shoot more footage when the project took a dramatic turn. His uncle, who had started to turn his life around by becoming a drug and alcohol counselor, was unexpectedly confronted by his violent criminal past. An indictment was issued implicating him in the 1982 murder of actor Frank Christi, and Rosenberg suddenly left town on the run. His fugitive status put the documentary on hold.

Rosenberg was caught a year later in Ventura after being featured on "America's Most Wanted," and then sent to Central Jail in Los Angeles to await a murder trial. While in prison, however, Rosenberg was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Gravely ill, Rosenberg was videotaped by the prosecution making a tearful confession to the murder.

While the first half of Trules' documentary focuses on philosophical issues of crime and morality, the second half was taken over by the drama of Rosenberg's sudden disappearance, and the murder trials that followed his arrest.

"There's no way I could have anticipated making the film that I ended up making," Trules says. "I started out making this modest little film about the relationship between myself and my uncle in 1991, and suddenly I was following all this action until 1996."

While some family members were against the project, others, including his parents, allowed themselves to be included in the work. In one long scene, Trules confesses to them that he's facing a felony burglary charge for breaking into an office and taking supplies and illegally using equipment. The revelation makes his mother angry and, eventually, tearful--raw emotions that all unfold in front of the camera.

"That was one of the worst days for my family. I realized I was going to unload this bomb on them," Trules says. "I knew I was exploiting them, and as a filmmaker I knew it would be good. But as a son, I knew I was putting them in a difficult position. They left feeling pretty bad that day."

Using autobiographical material is nothing new to Trules, who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s after more than 10 years of performing in New York City first as a modern dancer and then as a professional clown. He's published autobiographical poetry and also performed in several solo stage shows.

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