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Ellroy confidential

Documentary peaks into author's haunted past

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The squeamish will probably want to skip "James Ellroy's Feast of Death," premiering this month on Showtime. The biopic of the popular crime novelist pulls no punches in exploring its subject's twisted psyche, and perhaps ventures too far into the realm of shock over substance.

For the uninitiated, Ellroy is the author of 15 novels, most famously L.A. Confidential, the source for the 1997 Russell Crowe film. The author acknowledges his subsequent fame thanks to L.A. Confidential early on in "Feast of Death," but filmmaker Vikram Jayanti chooses to focus more on the factors from Ellroy's childhood that led to his morbid adult fascinations.

In 1958, when Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was mysteriously murdered in their low-income L.A. neighborhood. The crime was never solved. In the documentary, Ellroy details how he became obsessed with crime fiction as an attempt to "touch the fabric of death." The famous Black Dahlia case piqued his interest -- another L.A. murder that was never solved and bore some similarities to his mother's homicide.

Ellroy wrote of his family tragedy in 1996's My Dark Places, and quotes from the work frequently in the documentary, usually as actual crime scene photos of his mother's body roll across the screen. Though the gimmick bears a chilling impact at first, its force fades with repeat usage. Jayanti seems bent on eliciting gags from his audience, with frequent flashes of truly disturbing images from the LAPD photo archives, including the gruesome death mask of the Black Dahlia and shots of an unknown body Ellroy is researching.

But the author's own vitriol proves equally offensive. In interviews, he shows a near disdain for his fanbase and comes off most often as a cocky S.O.B. There's a certain bus-wreck appeal in watching him slam the Kennedy family or rail Bill Clinton, though we can't help but wonder what rhetoric underpins his arch-conservative convictions.

Sadly, Jayanti gets so caught up in his subject's outrageousness that he almost ignores Ellroy's philosophy as a writer. The author, who describes his books as "written in blood, seminal fluid and napalm," begins a fascinating argument that the detective is the great character of 20th-century literature, but doesn't have a chance to expound upon that thesis. "James Ellroy's Feast of Death" presumes a familiarity with the author's work that most viewers probably won't have, and doesn't do much to introduce this fascinating figure to newcomers. In exploring Ellroy's dark places, Jayanti could have benefited from bringing a bigger flashlight.

"James Ellroy's Feast of Death" airs Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

Seems this fall everyone's talking about nighttime teen dramas. "The OC," most obviously, has become a water cooler darling and is perhaps the clearest "hit" of the new season. But I've also heard a noteworthy level of buzz over the returning "Everwood" and even CBS's poorly placed newcomer, "Joan of Arcadia."

Oddly enough, the hour of teen turmoil I've somehow gotten hooked on is the WB underdog, "One Tree Hill."

The show draws its main -- OK, its only -- dramatic tension from sparring athletes Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan (James Lafferty), two high school basketball stars from opposite sides of the proverbial tracks. The catch: Lucas and Nathan have the same father, a real prick who does nothing to diffuse the dysfunctional situation. They also compete for the affection of the same girl (go figure), Peyton (Hilarie Burton).

Cheesy acting? Check. Melodrama? To die for. But "One Tree Hill's" hunky leads and overstated sense of self-importance have somehow proven addictive. Besides, now that the wicked "Nip/Tuck" has ended its season, there's no better source for scandal on Tuesday nights.

"One Tree Hill" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the WB.

tray.butler@creativeloafing.com

The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.

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