Having swapped the mean streets of north-west London for the palm-lined boulevards of Los Angeles, Louis Theroux’s new series of films sees him burrowing beneath the surface of his adopted city.
The three LA Stories are the work of the gritty Theroux, a more serious filmmaker to one who was propelled into the mainstream after shining a light on the oddness of Jimmy Savile or proving that three’s a crowd with Paul Daniels and “the lovely” Debbie McGee. That said, the well-honed Mr Logic routine has remained an effective tool for getting his subjects to drop their guards.
In the first film in the new series, City of Dogs, Theroux, infiltrates the internecine canine community in the gang-riven South Central district. There, he encounters bizarre handlers and feral hounds more suited to Grand Theft Auto V than Paris Hilton’s diamond-encrusted handbag.
The following week brings Edge of Life, arguably his most depressing film to date. Based in West Hollywood’s famed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, it follows the arc of three terminally ill patients, examining what happens when all avenues have been explored and all hope is gone.
It’s a gruelling watch but Theroux miraculously manages to find a shard of hope amid the gloom, aided by what doctors describe as a “million-to-one” shot that — spoiler alert — almost gives the film a Hollywood ending.
And finally, Sex Offenders does what it says on the electronic programme guide, providing an insight into the near impossibility of reintegrating into society.
It’s a tough gig, but arguably no worse than being stuck on a cruise ship with Ann Widdecombe…
City of Dogs is the first film to air. In all the times I've been to Los Angeles, i don't recall seeing a dog...
Well, I don’t think you had your eyes open because actually dogs are hugely woven into the fabric of LA life. It’s a kind of cliché that in West Hollywood, which is a gay area, you see fashionable young men walking their dogs around. But if you go to South Central it’s a whole different world. You see the dogs with no humans attached running around more or less abandoned or neglected or possibly leading happy, free lives, you know, like The Littlest Hobo.
Dog lovers aren't going to be happy about the footage of dogs being put down, are they?
I thought Edge of Life was very upsetting but it was when we delivered the dogs film that the channel said, ‘Oh we’re going to get a lot of complaints about this,’ like people will be more upset by seeing dogs getting put down than human beings dying.
There are some funny moments, too, like when you're told to "get your bitch ass back to London"
Don’t forget bitch is a dog term. One of the pleasures of being in the dog world is you can use the word bitch with gay abandon, like ‘How many of these bitches belong to you?’ All the way through the film dogs and humans are changing places, they get merged, even in the language. I have a ‘bitch ass’ and then a dog is called using the n-word. In the ’hood, they call each other ‘dogs’. So dogs and humans are constantly crossing over. It’s weird.
Tell us about the second film, Edge Of Life
That was the first one we filmed, but it was deemed a little bit too heavy to go out first. I guess it’s about people with life-threatening conditions and the very 21st century dilemma of having too many options available, options which may actually end up doing you no good at all and might possibly hurt you.
There's a grear Americanism: 'we suggest your pursue comfort measures.' It basically means, 'you're walking dead', right?
In one scene the doctors are basically telling a man that he’s dying and there’s nothing more they can do for him. They’re using euphemisms, understandably, like ‘comfort measures’ and ‘the direction of care’. But he doesn’t understand that they’re saying, ‘You’re going to be dead pretty soon.’ He thinks they’re just saying, ‘Well, you’re just going to stay in hospital for 20 years, lying there.’ He hasn’t taken it in.
Have you trained yourself to shut off emotionally?
Like a ninja? Like a ninja of the human emotions? It doesn’t quite work like that, although I think you have a certain professional prophylactic distance where you’re there in two roles: one is journalist, and one is human. You don’t totally shut it off but it’s different because a little part of your brain is almost always thinking, ‘Is this good material?’ It’s a strange schizophrenia of working in this kind of journalism.
Did you come away from that film with an respect for doctors and medical staff?
Oh, hugely. I always do hospital films and come away thinking, I wish I was a doctor, I wish I had a real job.
Episode 3, The Sex Offenders, deals with the ultimate taboo...
It’s about people who’ve been released from prison after committing some of the most disturbing sex offences – rape, paedophilia, exhibitionism, that sort of thing. They’re on parole, and because of various geographical laws enacted over the years in California, these offenders can only live in certain areas. A lot of them end up living in hostels in semi-industrial, godforsaken areas. We spent time at one of these hostels getting to know some of the paroled sex offenders. We examine the tension between the urge to punish and the urge to never forgive or forget, and, on the other hand, the urge to rehabilitate, to give people a second chance.
You clearly spent a lot of the time with these people, were any of them at all likeable?
That’s the heart of the question, examining whether or not you can befriend them. Certainly, I would say I got to know them and in some cases I suppose I got to like them a little bit while never quite forgetting what they’d done.
Did you know exactly what they'd done?
I knew what they’d done because I’d read the case notes and then at some stage with all of them I also talked to them about the offences they’d committed. In fact, with one of the main characters, it was only on the last day that I talked to him about his crimes, which involved his own children. It was someone I’d got to know really quite well so it was a very odd dissonance between what they’d done and how you feel when you know them.
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