The tall, lanky figure entered the room to building applause as the crowd recognized him; he mimed an autoerotic act and grabbed the podium with a vengeance. His shaved head, thick twitchy brows and Joycean eyeglasses screamed maniacal genius, and the performance-honed rant that followed did nothing to betray that.
This wasn't how these L.A. Film Festival talks usually start. Normally, a fest representative will thank the sponsors and the volunteers and then give a glowing introduction of the guests. Then a genteel discussion of cinematic art follows. But "normal" and James Ellroy haven't associated with each other for a very long time, if ever.
On this Monday evening, the provocative crime author proceeded to good-naturedly tongue-lash the audience for 15 minutes in his trademark staccato bebop of alliterative rhymes and proud if politically incorrect self-aggrandizement.
A little bit of snake-oil salesman mixed with a whole lot of revival-tent preacher, Ellroy warmed up the crowd and pitched his books to the point that it looked as if moderator Elvis Mitchell might not make it into the room, let alone get to open his mouth.
It was very funny and felt a little bit dangerous. An inmate had taken control of the asylum.
Finally, Ellroy did a whiplash segue to bring Mitchell onstage and the two sat down to discuss Los Angeles, the essence of noir, Ellroy's writing and the film adaptations it has begotten for better or worse. Profound and profane, Ellroy praised female nudity and slammed that sacred cow of L.A. movies, "Chinatown." He championed Dashiell Hammett ("a strike breaker") over Raymond Chandler ("a passive alcoholic businessman") and acclaimed the writing of Joseph Wambaugh.
The scheduled hourlong discussion ran 90 minutes, and no one complained. Mitchell and Ellroy punctuated their dialogue with clips from "Miller's Crossing," an episode of Showtime's "Fallen Angels" based on an Ellroy short story, the multiple Academy Award-nominated "L.A. Confidential" and a trailer for the upcoming adaptation of "The Black Dahlia."
For the record and on the q.t., Ellroy likes "Confidential" a lot and has high hopes for "Dahlia."