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Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
—John Fante, Ask the Dust
Like many great novels, the greatness of John Fante’s ode to our fair city during the depths of the Great Depression defies a film to contain it — the way its words roar across the page in those rambling, rhythmic sentences that seem to have been banged out in such a creative fever you can still feel the impressions left by the hammers of Fante’s typewriter. To make a film out of that might mean forcing a narrative onto Fante’s loosely interconnected episodes; to externalize fundamentally internal thoughts and moods and feelings; and to risk rendering fixed on the screen what, on the page, feels spontaneous and impossible to pin down. So, when screenwriter and occasional director Robert Towne announced that he was planning to film Ask the Dust, one couldn’t help wondering if this wasn’t the sort of dream project best left as a nocturnal longing.
More than a decade after Towne optioned the rights, Ask the Dust is a reality, and if the end result isn’t quite a great movie, it’s indisputably a reverential one, from the sepia-toned studio logo that starts the film to the pages of Fante’s book that turn beneath the opening credits, as if we were entering into the realm of some timeless fable. And it’s clear from the start that, for Towne — who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in San Pedro — that’s exactly what Ask the Dustis. Towne has been down this road before, of course, in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown, but whereas that vision of a bygone L.A. was filtered through the anything-but-rose-colored glasses of its director, Roman Polanski, here everything is romanticized, right down to the suffering of the movie’s characters. Watching it, you sense that, no matter the economic despair of the times, there’s no historical moment that Towne (who was born in 1934) would sooner return to — a Los Angeles where streetcars still ran, Bunker Hill bustled with residential life and struggling writers subsisted on stale fruit and stolen milk in the rented rooms of ramshackle residence hotels.
Ask the Dusttells of one such writer — the Boulder, Colorado, native (and Fante alter-ego) Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), who arrives in California fresh from having his first short story published in H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, only to find that such successes are short-lived and that, soon enough, pen must be once again set to paper. Perhaps it goes without saying that Towne, who has always excelled at studying characters through their vocation, shares in Fante’s remarkable understanding of those long, lonely nights spent waiting for the muse to call — the scenes of Bandini at his typewriter, hoping against hope for a good idea, are among the most knowing scenes of a writer’s creative process I can recall seeing in a movie. Bandini dreams of becoming the next great American author, with an emphasis on American, as if a best-seller or two might forever erase the stigma of his Italian heritage and the ethnic insults he weathered throughout his youth. And so it is that when Arturo first meets the Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), he allows himself to feel superior, making light of her worn huarache sandals, not quite realizing that it is the very sound of their creaking leather that is causing him to fall in love with her.
Arturo and Camilla’s passionate but stormy relationship — the focal point of Ask the Dust — is touchingly rendered by Towne and the actors. That Farrell, current poster boy for debauched celebrity living, is able to convince as a man fatally inexperienced and awkward around women is alone some kind of accomplishment; but his real triumph in the role is how he reveals Bandini’s tormented inner being. In his quiet scenes together with Hayek, we see how the very thing that attracts Arturo to Camilla also repels him — the recognition of another rootless soul longing to know what it means to be a true American. And Hayek is every bit his equal, her blazing dark features belying a porcelain emotional fragility. Towne, it must be said, has never been the most natural of movie directors, and there are moments in Ask the Dustthat feel stilted and inert, like pages peeled from a moth-eaten library book and pasted onto the screen. But for the most part, Ask the Dustunfolds with confidence, as though Towne had been rehearsing these moves for the better part of his career. The dialogue crackles with Fante-like fire, and the film is marbled with appearances from many of the tragic eccentrics — notably the shell-shocked drunkard Hellfrick (played with ragged grace by Donald Sutherland) and the physically and emotionally scarred Jewess, Vera Rivkin (the powerful Broadway actress Idina Menzel) — whose paths cross Bandini’s only briefly, but who are nevertheless essential elements on Fante’s periodic table of desire and despair.
Ask the Dustwas filmed on location in South Africa, and the re-creations of 1930s Bunker Hill and its surroundings, all built from the ground up by production designer Dennis Gassner (Bugsy, Barton Fink) with the aid of digital effects and matte paintings, are stunning. As for those who’ve been wondering whether Towne (and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel) would be able to accurately reproduce the quality of Los Angeles light on those foreign shores, rest assured that he’s done a fine job, but perhaps an even better one at re-creating the inimitable howl of the Santa Ana winds and the dust that they carry — a reminder that the streets we walk upon were desert not so long ago. But what seduces most about Ask the Dustisn’t its verisimilitude, but its gloriously old-fashioned backlot sheen — the L.A. of old Hollywood movies and of our collective fantasies. For this isn’t merely a dream project, but a dream — Towne’s belated valentine to his city and Fante’s adopted one and, in the words of Bandini, all the people who came there from someplace else.
ASK THE DUST | Written and directed by ROBERT TOWNE, based on the novel by JOHN FANTE | Produced by TOM CRUISE, PAULA WAGNER, DON GRANGER and JONAS McCORD | Released by Paramount Classics | At ArcLight, AMC Century City and Monica 4-Plex
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