There’s an inescapable sense of longing and love in Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust, which the director adapted from John Fante’s novel. An influence on Bukowski whose works received renewed popularity under the Black Sparrow Press logo, Fante wrote beautiful tales of the Los Angeles that exists in the collective hearts and minds of everyone, no matter if they’ve ever actually been to Southern California. The pre-Beat prose is overpowering, as Fante’s literary alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, pours out odes to the city that could only come from a romantic in his twenties, so in love with the town he can’t see straight or understand how that love might let him down: “Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town,” reads Fante’s book. And that love clearly flows through Towne, who treats the story with such admiration that, though Ask the Dust is anything but a great film, it is a good one, a reverential one, a film that creates a world well worth inhabiting for two hours.
The film opens on the novel Ask the Dust on a table, each page turning to reveal a member of the cast before turning into a beautiful CG-animated aerial shot of Depression-era Los Angeles. It’s a brilliant use of special effects to set the tone for the story without letting them override it. We soar over the town as it was before smog and highways and Paris Hilton, homing in on the Alta Loma Hotel as Arturo (Colin Farrell) begins his narration. The narration’s double-edged blade ultimately winds up hurting the film more than helping it: It would be difficult to imagine making the film without keeping some of Fante’s prose around in voice-over, but narration is inherently dangerous, and almost never works out. It’s almost a requisite for noir, but Farrell just can’t pull it off, his forced line readings landing somewhere around Harrison Ford’s abysmal narration in the studio cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Indeed, the narration often conspires with the inconsistent score from Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira to turn moments of genuine emotion into experiments in camp.
Arturo, an aspiring writer, tells us he came to L.A. “like everyone else,” and Towne shows him doing what writers really do: When not scraping together a few cents to grab a cup of coffee, Arturo often sits at his desk staring blankly at the typewriter, too consumed with the thought of writing to actually do any, until he finally begins to pour out his thoughts in a fury. He’s so distraught at his lack of direction that he puts his frustrations and observations of the town in a letter to his editor, H.L. Mencken, who publishes the letter as a story in its own right. It’s the first step in Arturo’s discovery that trying to describe life is the first obstacle to seeing it, along with his growing relationship with Camilla (Salma Hayek), a waitress at the local cafe. Arturo is bitter, introverted, and awkward around women — unusual for a writer, I know — and hurls racial slurs at Camilla for her habit of wearing worn-out old huaraches as she serves him gritty coffee. He regrets his rudeness the next day and returns with a gift: an autographed copy of his latest published story. They strike up a slow friendship born of mutual recognition of their outsider status, two immigrants doing their best to forget their third-class position in the American land of plenty. They drive out to the ocean one night and frolic naked in the waves, Towne’s own version of Adam and Eve, the very last people on earth.
True to literary form, Ask the Dust unfolds with the rambling build of a novel instead of a rigid three-act screenplay. In addition to Camilla, Arturo finds fuel for his stories in Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), the drunk across the hall who always seems to need a nickel for booze, and Vera (Idina Menzel), a local woman who becomes infatuated with Arturo. She comes to visit him one night, emotionally distraught and desperate for some kind of connection that she thinks can save her. Farrell’s a competent enough actor, but Menzel is brilliant, offering a nuanced portrait of a spiritually damaged woman looking for completion. She elevates Farrell in their scenes together, and her subplot is a bittersweet one: tragic to watch, but somehow rewarding in its emotional accuracy and vulnerability.
The tale grows until Arturo, flush with Mencken’s latest check, takes Camilla down to Laguna with him, the story having evolved from an embattled anti-romance into a wistful picture of two loners who have managed to find each other. Despite having starred in some terrible films, Farrell at last begins to show some promise as an actor, though it’s hard for him to overcome his natural charisma. Ask the Dust has long been a dream project for Towne, and Johnny Depp expressed interest in playing Arturo in the early 1990s; that would have been a sight to see. Still, Farrell can’t damage Fante’s words or Towne’s heart too badly. And Hayek gives easily her best performance to date, a complex, scared, passionate woman who’s as insecure as Arturo about her skin color. Not long after they meet, she says she wouldn’t marry him because going from Lopez to Bandini isn’t a big enough change, and she often asks Arturo if he wishes his surname were Williams or Johnson or something more, you know, normal. Camilla’s ashamed of her ethnicity, but it’s a chip on Arturo’s shoulder, a badge of defiant honor: He refuses to change his name, even though part of him knows that it might smooth the road a little. True to the emotions of these burned-out, compelling characters, the story’s core is one of love constant beyond life and death, and Towne wears his heart on his sleeve every step of the way, howling for those lost to come back again. You have to admire that.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Ask the Dust / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()