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‘L.A. Confidential’ Author James Ellroy on Curtis Hanson: ‘He Was a Voyeur, He Was a Camera’

My strange and strangely gifted friend Curtis died earlier this week. His film of my novel L.A. Confidential was a signature moment in my life. The signature was his, more than mine. Thus, this eulogy and post-mortem note of thanks for the splendid gift he gave me.

Curtis was movie-mad. The world outside of films escaped his attention to the same extent that films held him spellbound. He mentally catalogued every film he saw and tagged the good ones as learning texts. He was a natural autodidact and a superb film-watcher. He possessed a voyeur’s gaze.

He was ever the lonely man perched outside an unreachable woman’s window. His films refract his voyeur’s gaze and a concurrent reluctance to smash the window, and grab the woman whole. Curtis Hanson’s films are finely crafted, painstakingly realized, restrained at their core. They are characterized by emotional stasis and suffused with muted yearning. You don’t feel Curtis Hanson’s films. You admire their allegiance to craft.

Curtis Hanson’s gaze was ever deferential to the art of film itself. His films explore and never explode. Even his heartbreak unfolds in restraint. There is a debit and credit sheet here. The viewer flails for emotional coherence and fails to find it. The viewer comes away with a sense of life deftly observed. Voyeur, filmmaker, observer — the most circumspect man I’ve ever met. Curtis Hanson was a camera above all else.

The camera’s gaze illuminated my ninth novel twenty-odd years ago. Curtis treated me respectfully and deferentially at all times. I responded in kind and did not meddle in the making of the film itself. “L.A. Confidential went on to be grandly praised and honored and is properly viewed as the finest American crime film of the era. I find the film problematic and emblematic of the Curtis Hanson disjuncture. What I failed to feel, I admired. What I lost in emotional pop, I regained in a rush of breathtaking craftsmanship.

L.A. Confidential, my novel. “L.A. Confidential,” Curtis Hanson’s film. Disjuncture within disjuncture — and my world as his world, reconceived and revealed. In the end, a primer on novels-as-film.

I conceived a tale of 1953 L.A. and populated it with men and women in extremis. Curtis Hanson rearranged my world and repopulated it with men and women less extreme than mine. My plotlines were reduced and re-stitched, my time frame was compressed, my love stories were re-triangulated. I created a world on paper. Curtis Hanson re-created it for film. It was my world but his world but my world to the point where all claims of ownership were blurred and lost. My dramatic sense and Curtis’s dramatic sense were always at odds. It didn’t matter. I don’t make movies, Curtis Hanson didn’t write novels. He gave me the gift of my words in a luminous new form.

Curtis is gone now. I’ll introduce his film to a hundred more audiences before I go myself. Curtis Hanson, 1945-2016. He was a voyeur, he was a camera, he was a filmmaker — and he was the audience itself. The concept of the audience warms me as I write this.

Here’s an epitaph, courtesy of A.E. Housman:

Eyes the shady night has shut, Cannot see the record cut, And silence sounds no worse than cheers  — After Earth has stopped the ears.

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