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A revealing portrait of a mystery man: James Ellroy

October 23, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

A penetrating portrait emerges in "James Ellroy's Feast of Death," which screens tonight at the Egyptian in the American Cinematheque Alternative Screen showcase.

The celebrated novelist is best known for his series of books set in the '40s and '50s involving the turbulent lives of LAPD detectives, most notably "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential," which became a highly acclaimed film in its own right.

Filmmaker Vikram Jayanti captures Ellroy in a wide range of locales and situations that have figured in his life. The heart of the matter is how his mother's murder in 1958, when he was 10 -- which led to his fascination with the notorious unsolved 1947 Black Dahlia murder case -- shaped him as a man and eventually as an artist.

Ellroy's troubled childhood and youth are well-known, as are his struggles to come to terms with his mother's never-solved murder. But Jayanti manages to capture the warm, caring, even romantic individual lurking behind his sometimes crusty but always impassioned and provocative public persona. (Ellroy is happily married to writer Helen Knode.)

At the film's compelling center is a dinner party held at Ellroy's beloved Pacific Dining Car with the writer surrounded by his LAPD friends, plus Nick Nolte and Times copy editor Larry Harnisch. Note: Images of the Black Dahlia's corpse are not for the squeamish.

Human comedy in Patagonia

Carlos Sorin's droll "Historias Minimas" (Minimal Stories), which launches the American Cinematheque's weekend New Argentine Cinema series Friday at the Egyptian, is a classic feel-good movie embracing the human comedy in the spirit of Alessandro Blasetti's "Times Gone By" and Max Ophuls' "Le Plaisir," turning on small incidents that reveal the gentler aspects of the interplay of fate and character.

The film was one of the most appealing offerings in July's annual Latino International Film Festival.

Sorin has aptly said his film is about "the precariousness of desires." It focuses on three individuals in the remote Patagonian town of Fitz Roy, all eager to get to Port San Julian 200 miles away.

Maria Flores (Javiera Bravo), a poor young wife and mother, must get there the next day to claim a prize. Don Justo (Antonio Benedictis), the elderly owner of the local grocery, is hitchhiking to a highway patrol station on the road to San Julian to retrieve his lost dog.

Traveling salesman Roberto (Javier Lombardo) recognizes Don Justo, offering him a ride. Divorced and lonely, Roberto wants to deliver a surprise birthday cake to the child of a young widow with whom he is smitten. None of these goals is earth-shaking, but the fact that their journey takes place against vast Patagonian vistas has the effect of making their humble missions loom larger.

Riding the rails

Jack Cahill and David Eberhardt spent seven years tracking the lives of seven individuals riding the rails as self-described tramps, and it has paid off in "Long Gone," which is one of the most deeply affecting documentaries within memory.

These are people who've suffered a loss or survived a trauma or simply craved the freedom of the road and have found a sustaining community of lost souls along the way.

Some dream of life off the road, some try it for a while, only to be drawn inexorably back to the nomadic existence. These are individuals, of varying ages and backgrounds, who share remarkably poetic souls, which they express eloquently.

For all the camaraderie and closeness to nature, a life spent riding the rails can be dangerous and lead to self-destructiveness, and "Long Gone" never flinches from hardship, loss and the occasional betrayal.

Many would see these drifters as scruffy outcasts running away from life, but Cahill and Eberhardt suggest instead that they're rushing toward it with open arms.

Kevin Thomas can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.

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Screenings

"James Ellroy's Feast of Death": Tonight at 7:30, American Cinematheque Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian,

6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-FILM

"Historias Minimas": Friday,

7 p.m., American Cinematheque Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian

"Long Gone": Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., Laemmles Fairfax Cinemas, (323) 655-4010; Nov. 1-2 at the Monica 4-Plex,

(310) 394-9741; Nov. 8-9 at

the Playhouse 7, Pasadena,

(626) 844-6500; Nov. 15-16 at the Fallbrook 7, West Hills, (818) 340-8710

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