she deserved better

i don't sleep well. i never have, really. at least, i haven't since i was very young. it comes in fits and starts. two hours here or there, a part of a movie in between until i drift off again, and all of it filled with vivid, often difficult, dreams. i know a lot of people would gladly trade the nightmares for a peaceful night's rest once in a while, but i don't think i would. i would hate to sacrifice my dreams, even the punishing ones. it would make the sleep experience so dreadfully boring, i would imagine. to lay down, have eight hours go by, and then just get up again? no messages to decode? no images to ponder throughout the day? no thanks. plus, they're not all bad. in the past several weeks, i have had three or four very vivid dreams with a recurring theme. in these, women have come to me - a friend, a fictional character, a historical figure - and given me guidance, taught me things, let me know i am loved. my subconscious, of late, has been occasionally distributing these moments of comfort, wisdom and tenderness. two nights ago, i had one about elizabeth short.

if you know her, you probably know her by another name - the black dahlia. she was the victim of what is probably the most notorious unsolved crime this side of jack the ripper. they found her in two pieces posed in a vacant lot in los angeles on the morning of 1.15.47. the crime was horrific in both its clinical precision and its utter savagery. if you are unfamiliar with the case, you can find basic details here. the case has haunted southern california for sixty-odd years now and is the darkest shadow cast across los angeles' noir cityscape.

in my dream, we spent the better part of an afternoon together. we sat in a park, on the grass, for a while and then walked to a lunch counter together. her face looked just like her face in her morgue photo - broken nose, scratched and gouged face, insect bites from being left outside, those horrible slits in the sides of her mouth - i won't post it here but it's easy enough to find if you'd like a more definite idea. the only difference is that her eyes were clear and bright, like in the photo above. she was terribly embarrassed by how she looked, her jaw lolling from her wounds, beyond her control. she had to speak slowly and carefully to be understood. it was heart-rending. it made me cry a little for her and she touched my face to reassure me that it was alright. her hands were soft and cold. even ruined, she was beautiful. where she wasn't wounded, her skin seemed bright and alive. it almost makes me cry now to think about it, two days later. she wanted to tell me not to compromise myself, because it ends badly. she wanted to tell me that the mystery of her case is no worse than the things of it we already know to a certainty. she was so angry and sad about how they tricked her mother. she seemed to feel sorry for me, like she knew something i didn't. i figured she knew an awful lot that i didn't, actually. she seemed to want to protect me but couldn't because she, of all people, was too well acquainted with the fact that none of us can truly protect each other. it was enough that she wanted to. her dress was knee length, black with bone-colored polka dots about the circumference of an eraser on a pencil. it wasn't silk, but an approximation. it felt soft, but cheap, when she hugged me goodbye. i realized then that she still hadn't "made it" like she wanted to, still wearing bargain basement knock-offs. she walked up the street, turned the corner and i woke up.

and there's where i should have left it. instead, i decided to watch brian de palma's the black dahlia (2006).

there's scarlett johansson, "acting".

i don't usually spend a lot of time here talking about movies i don't like. i'd much rather use the space to tell you about something worthwhile. since that dream, though, elizabeth short has been stuck in my head and, since my subconscious' version of her was so sweet and gracious, even loving, in the face of her overwhelming misery, i feel like i owe it to her to tell you to completely avoid this film.

mia kirshner does an adequate job conveying the little-girl-lost quality you expect the dahlia to have but it's not enough to outweigh the litany of things wrong with this film. everyone else is miscast, and that's being diplomatic. the narrative is meandering and the bulk of the film focuses on a love triangle in which the participants couldn't produce chemistry if their fingers were test tubes and their heads were bunsen burners. de palma throws in a few of his stock visual flourishes but they don't actually advance the film in any way. hilary swank's accent is laughable. bulgaria, where they shot most of the film, is supposed to be a sufficient stand-in for los angeles. no one in the film possesses the kind of carriage it takes to put the jazz from james ellroy's magnificent source novel on the screen. you know everything that went right when they brilliantly adapted l.a. confidential (1997)? well, that many things went wrong here.

a gripping scene from the black dahlia!

how do you take the most fascinating unsolved crime in the history of the state of california and make it this unwatchable? the case gets the short shrift, that's how. you could excise about twenty minutes of the film and you'd have no idea it was about the dahlia at all. maybe de palma had the same dream a few years before me. maybe he really took it to heart when she said the unknown part of her story was no more fascinating than what we already knew. it still doesn't explain things, though, even if you took the dahlia case completely out. it fails as noir. it fails as true crime (i know the source novel is a fictionalized account, you know what i mean), it fails as a tangled romance. it just fails, and that's just a shame. in my dream, she was a sweet kid. i hope someday, someone does right by her.

her friends called her betty.


  1. i loved reading this post. as someone who also can't sleep and is not sure i would trade it for a normal night's rest, i can relate. i had a nightmare the other night that ended with me in a hospital bed, my face covered in cuts and odd shaped bruises. haven't really shaken it since.

    i'm glad i didn't see the movie.

  2. i'm glad you didn't see it either.

    and i'm glad your face is really o.k. it would be nice to see it some time.

  3. The thing that broke my heart about this movie is I read the book right before the movie was announced.

    And if you asked me to pick a director to adapt the film, with it's gothic violence, perversity, hollywood sheen, kinky sex, voyeuristic obsession and bizarre eroticism. De Palma would be on the TOP of the list.

    And instead he just FUCKED it up.

    There's stuff here that's just bizarrely incompetent. I mean killing the killer with a 1/3 of the movie left to go? What the fuck?

    For awhile I deluded myself, and there are a few good things, KD Lang's Lesbian Nightclub, the first scene of Hartnett meeting the "family", the reuniting of William Finley and De Palma...

    But they can't change what a profoundly incompetent, MISCALCULATED fuck up this movie is.

  4. vilmos zsigmond's photography, although sometimes uncharacteristically flat, is also generally a positive. bryce, given a weekend and some community theatre players, you and i could make a better movie.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. It was dark and rather poetic. I wanted to inform you that I included a link to it in my second "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!


    By the way, my 'word verification'? I shit you not...Dalia.

  6. thank you. glad you enjoyed it. and thanks for passing it along to other folks who might appreciate it. that's nuts about your word verification.