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Is Robert Towne L.A.'s Woody Allen? His portraits of the city are indelible, and one of the chief pleasures of Ask the Dust is the way in which the depression-era City of Angels becomes a character in the film. Ask the Dust is haunted by the notion that L.A. is the place where people come to slowly die in the sunshine and is fascinating as a piece of "sunny" film noir. It also explores themes of racism, prejudice and self-esteem and how they manifest themselves in personal relationships. There's a daring ugliness to the romance that makes the first third of the film especially compelling. The scene where Arturo Bandini and Camilla Lopez first meet is pure cinema and one of the more remarkable bits of mainstream film making I've seen in some time. In its way, it is as sublime as Brassai's photos of café-society Paris. In the work print I viewed, Ask the Dust wasn't able to sustain this opening intensity, but it managed to stay compelling nevertheless. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Ask the Dust is that it reminded me why Chinatown is such a great film (and the comparisons will be inevitable); while I don't think Ask the Dust is in the same league, it does herald the welcome return of Robert Towne as an artist who understands L.A. by instinct, knows how to tap into Hollywood's rich history, and can deliver a human-scale film with the power to reward and possibly even change its audience.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Towne give a talk in Toronto, in which
he mused on his long and (mostly) illustrious career. From Chinatown to
Personal Best to The Firm, he spouted off anecdotes and insights into
Hollywood and the screen writing process in general.
Then the audience was treated to a special preview screening of "Ask the Dust." It would seem that this has been a labour of love for Mr. Towne; one that has been several decades in the making. So in that sense, perhaps this film doesn't merit harsh criticism. The fact that Towne got it made is to be commended.
It's not a bad film, by any right. It boasts two decent performances from its leads Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, lush cinematography, meticulous period detail and a sumptuous score. All the elements of a great film are there. However, nothing really gels.
My guess is that the source material is the film's ultimate downfall. It's dated, and contradictory. What begins as a pulpy potboiler in the vein of "The Postman Rings Twice" becomes a politically correct tirade against intolerance. Oh, and there's a healthy dose of "La Boheme" thrown in there for good measure.
The first half of the film is intriguing as the characters' motivations are enigmatic and unpredictable. Hayek comes across as a latina femme fatale, while Farrell plays the flawed noirish anti-hero. L.A. itself is a character - one of a city at odds with its surroundings. The description of the sand (or dust) from the desert filling the air is particularly poignant.
Halfway through, the film takes a perplexing turn. Turns out there is no mystery behind the motives of the leads. They just wanted to be loved/understood. Cue Hollywood clichés, and end scene. You can't help but be disappointed.
Perhaps in the hands of a '70s auteur director like Polanski, Antonioni or Bob Rafelson, the source material could have been tweaked or restructured to yield a more surprising and challenging film. I even wondered what the film would have been like with a 70s screen icon like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino in the lead role.
Ask the Dust follows the Depression Era story of a rather average
writer attempting to be a great one. Set in the new-get-rich town of
failed dreams (Los Angeles), the writer is an inexperienced and
virginal Colin Farrell, who gradually falls for the uncompromising
immigrant waitress Salma Hayek. This is a movie which, like its hero,
has great ambitions but fails pitifully in many of them, yet one which
can be treasured for its moments of pure beauty and shining rapture in
its laboured attempt to become a classic.
Colin Farrell's career to this point, after a spectacular rise with the gripping and slightly manic role in Phone Booth, attempted to scale heights which were out of reach (in Alexander, for instance), and then now seems to be developing more methodically with admirable performances such as The New World. In Ask the Dust his casting seems pitched just right, stretching him without making the demands which would need a more experienced actor. Salma Hayek, who is never shy about making a stand for Mexican women (and why not?) slots into her role perfectly. Unlike Farrell's character, an Italian who is nevertheless proud to be American, Hayeck fights on the back foot against the prejudice which she has encountered in real life even to this day. Her starring against Farrell's delicate writer also comes naturally. She has been quoted as saying (in one of her less political or feminist moments), "I keep waiting to meet a man who has more balls than I do," and in our story Farrell has his work cut out to dominate her in true Mexican latino fashion.
Farrell and Hayek both being considered among top cinema sex icons, it will come as no disappointment to fans of both that they get into the buff on more than one occasion. One of the best scenes in the film is where Hayek challenges him to show her how to 'ride a wave' one night by moonlight. He bluffs it manfully, not admitting it is his first time in the sea, until she plays a practical joke to pay him back for pretending to have had a heart attack in her restaurant. The colours of the ocean are shot with memorable skill as the two of them out-dare each other (even though she later teases him for being afraid to show his penis on the beach). The director cleverly avoids falling into romantic comedy by using dramatic tension and the love-hate of their unconsummated affair. When the two of them finally do have sex, the turn on is not so much Farrell's heaving buttocks or Hayeck's naked chest it is the fact that their emotions, that they have struggled with for so long, finally succeed in speaking each other's language.
Other gems include times when translation deliberately falls between the cracks. ''It's not 'grew in me' but 'grew on me','' says Farrell, corrected her stumbling attempts at English (after asking her if it was love at first sight). She however makes a careful metaphor, saying how he grew inside her like a child. Sadly such moments are all too few and far between in this two hour movie. Dedicated cinephiles, or older generation moviegoers that have patience for a slowly developing tale, will wear the more pedestrian scripting and direction that fills the large spaces in-between, but such shortcomings will deny the film wider audience appeal in spite of its stars' charisma. Any poetic message element on the race and immigration theme ( . . . happiness is that you can be in a place where you are secure, and fall in love with whoever you want to, and not feel ashamed of it) is not backed up with any clarity of thought in the script (Farrell justifies his American-ness by youth and love of his country, throwing ageism in to replace racism); and the pot-shots at marijuana (if you will excuse the pun), which Hayek uses partly, we suspect, to ease her illness, are so politically incorrect as to be laughable outside of the 'great United States'. The overall message is similar to that erronous belief of George W Bush - that people of other (especially poorer) countries, simply aspire one day to be as great and wonderful as Americans. Salma Hayek may believe this role could help fight for the recognition and equality for all peoples, but it is unlikely that many outside of modern misguided America will see it that way. Like its protagonist, we can only hope that such promise and talent can somewhere blossom into greater writing that here witnessed.
I read the book 8 years ago. I was moved by it. I saw the movie today, and everything in the movie was the way I pictured things in the book. This has got to be the best movie of the year. I thought it did justice to the great John Fante's classic. I can also see why Charles Bukowski liked Fante so much... he was one of the first writers that wrote about the LA of rooming houses, cheap hotels and seedy lounges... although, I feel Ask the Dust, the book and the movie, made it seem a little more romantic. I can't say enough about Colin Farrell's performance; this is by far my favorite. Salma, I have always liked. The sets and the costumes were also spot on. I was transported back in time. I liked the fact that there was very little profanity, which kept the integrity of the book and was most likely accurate for the period that was being portrayed. I think no matter what station in life you were in back then, you always tried to put on your best face. This was interesting, because it contrasted with the dingy atmosphere of 1930's LA.
"Ask the Dust" has excellent elements that almost come together as a
Like "End of the Affair" and "The White Countess", it surrounds a fraught love affair with exquisite looking period recreation that almost sucks the life out of it. (As with those films, the senior citizens at my matinée really enjoyed the period aspect.) Set in a sepia-tinged Depression-era Los Angeles of polluted palm trees, it is populated equally by youthful blond California girls and boys and old people at the end of the continent and their lines, as symbolized by Donald Sutherland's begging boarding house neighbor, like a ghost from his role in "The Day of the Locust".
What saves the film is the frank dialog and odd sparks between Colin Farrell, as repressed Italian-American writer from Colorado, novelist John Fante's alter ego with the even more ethnically redolent name of "Arturo Bandini", and Salma Hayak as a non-stereotyped Mexican spitfire "Camilla Lopez". Their repartee about their biases is raw and fresh.
Significantly, they are not the usual naive teen lovers, but are adults with mileage who are striving to change the trajectory of their lives. In this discrimination-filled, pre-celebration of the melting pot/rainbow environment (heavy-handedly demonstrated such as by their viewing Ruby Keeler's famous line from "Dames" "I'm free, white, and 21."), both are trying to make it in a specific image of the American Dream, a non-ethnic one, though we hear very little about their own sense of their ethnic identity. She is even dating a nasty guy named White in the vain hope of obtaining a green card and citizenship.
Hayak's character is the easier to understand, as we see her exuberate in vibrant blue moonlight when she feels free with him, especially in vivid ocean scenes (she is absolutely stunning swimming naked), and then in bright light at a seashore idyll. This gorgeous scene gives "From Here to Eternity" a run for its money as the sexiest crashing of waves coupling in the movies. Though after all her sexually aggressive seduction efforts, their lovemaking is lit beautifully in the dark but conventionally choreographed as I expected her to demand more equality in bed. But then she's already started coughing with Movie Star Disease, even if it's explained more in the plot than usual.
Even with his constant florid more than bordering on pretentious narration, sometimes in an exaggerated lower register, of his writing efforts (with the usual scenes of paper being ripped out a manual typewriter as he receives encouragement from H. L. Mencken) that doesn't really thematically integrate into the film until the end, it is harder to understand why it takes so long to get his uptight clothes off despite many importunings. There is an unusually sweet flirtation over literacy, but it seemed more like condescension on his part, especially to help her get citizenship, than sharing with her his love of words. The non-narrated scenes are a relief and are beautiful to look at, as the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (dad of actresses Zoey and Emily) is consistently lovely.
But then Farrell is surrounded by eccentric characters who are all hiding emotional or physical scars until he can face up to his own to find his real writer's voice. Idina Menzel's "Vera Rifkin" is a well-educated Jewish housekeeper whose California dreams (or borderline crazed fantasies) are for some reason now focused on being a writer's muse.
Surprisingly, there is very little period music, maybe for budget reasons. A prominent and excellent selection is Artie Shaw's version of "Gloomy Sunday" which has its own legend of love and death. The score is sometimes intrusive and not as evocative of the clashing ethnic traditions as it could have been.
As voluntary Cinema Manager at Coalville's Century Theatre, I'm always on the lookout for films of artistic quality which are not necessarily multiplex successes. I must confess I did read a couple of newspaper reviews when this film was first released in the UK, - they weren't particularly favourable but they did highlight the Robert Towne/Chinatown connection, - but I forgot all about it until I visited Italy for a weekend holiday in July. As I was passing a cinema in Verona, I was attracted by a couple of very attractive stills...for Ask The Dust. I decided to find out a bit more about the film when I returned home. After doing this, I felt it would be deserving of a screening at our little venue and I booked the film as soon as it was made available to the non-theatrical circuit. I eventually showed the film last night and I believe this was the first public showing in Leicestershire. I fully endorse the comments of others before me, - the lighting, sets, period sense and cinematography are absolutely marvellous, - just literally lovely to look at. I thought Colin Farrell was fine in the central role and am at a loss why he's come in for criticism from some quarters for this performance. Salma Hayek also scores in her sniping early scenes with Farrell and portrays well her character's fears and insecurities at a time when being Mexican was so obviously looked down upon (a very neat selection by Towne for the film excerpt in the cinema scene). Pity our own Eileen Atkins had such a tiny role. Although certainly not a commercial film, it does feature some memorable scenes such as the Long Beach earthquake and the moonlight swim among the crashing waves. And I really liked the idyllic seaside period enjoyed by the two (eventual!) lovers...with the little dog. A good sharp ending in true old-fashioned Hollywood style with a nod towards Camille, which apparently is not in the book, so I've read. After the film finished, I wasn't sure how my audience would react but comments were generally very favourable...and the fairly overt but well-handled sex scene had caused no offence...in fact I did get a couple of middle aged ladies offering glowing expressions with their references to Mr Farrell's appearance in that scene. A very good, quality film, lovingly made by Robert Towne...but one couldn't help thinking with a little more sharpness early on, it could have been even better. It's a piece that will linger in the memory though, in my opinion, and you can't say that about the majority of the modern day films.
The movie has the hallmark of old American writings, with lots of
metaphors and big words for showing what is really everyday life. The
script is original, unlike most of the films today, because is based on
a book about the depression era in the US. The actors play very well
and the images are very well done. I would venture to say the
soundtrack was equally flawless, since it didn't bother me one bit
(didn't really notice it, either).
So what was wrong about the movie? I don't know. Maybe the pace, since it was two hours long. Or the subject, which was ... smooth. I mean, there were no real bumps in it. Everything just went by itself. In the tradition of "road writers" the character is almost an observer, left to his own emotions, but incapable of acting. I can't say that characters weren't original, but more in the direction of weirdly annoying rather than interesting.
Bottom line: it's a drama. The romance itself is strong, not the diluted stuff you see nowadays, but I wouldn't call this a romantic movie. I suggest watching it when you feel philosophical or want something new, yet slow paced.
Robert Towne's obvious love affair with John Fante's Depression Era
novel, ASK THE DUST, is evident throughout this somewhat over-long
film. While the story is a bit clumsy and self-indulgent with so many
sidebars that the momentum of the movie gets bogged down in the
telling, there are enough fine attributes to make it a recommended
evening of reminiscence about Los Angeles, the City of the Angels in
Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) narrates the tale of a lad from Colorado with one published story in a magazine edited by H.L. Mencken who moves to Los Angeles' Bunker Hill apartments to write his big novel. The city of LA has never seemed so strange as it seems with Caleb Deschanel's magnificent photography outlining a city filled with dust blown miscreants - people with dreams at varying stages of dissolution. Arturo quickly becomes penniless, is pestered for rent by landlady Mrs. Hargraves (Dame Eileen Atkins) and for handouts by drunkard Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), and still a virgin he plies his vision as a writer in a local café where he encounters the beautiful Camilla (way too much of a play on the character of Dumas' 'Camille'...). The two play a battle of wits and insults to cover their apparent infatuation with each other: Mexican Camilla is looking for a wealthy 'white man' to raise her out of her illiterate station and Arturo is looking for a sexual encounter to spur his writing.
During their extended 'courting' Arturo is vamped by Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel), a Jewish housekeeper with grossly deformed legs who dreams of a man who will call her beautiful, and in a touching encounter Arturo displays the kind vulnerability lying under his rather callous and naive exterior.
Arturo and Camilla at last connect, and in a Laguna beach house they fall under the spell of love, a state that ends tragically, like the dust from the desert winds burying all hopes of the people of Southern California.
The story is a bit clunky and the dialogue feels forced at times but it is always a pleasure to see the work of Farrell, Hayek, Atkins, and Sutherland. The true beauty of this truly beautiful film is in the atmosphere and the mood captured by Towne and Deschanel. Their work offers a mood piece that forgives some of the awkwardness of the threadbare story and shows off the actors well. The film may move a bit too slowly for some, but for others, this is a moment of history well captured. Grady Harp
This is a movie that demonstrates that mood and music and texture
aren't enough to make a good film. Sure, the viewer is treated to
numerous fine scenes of Los Angeles in the thirties--I especially liked
the view of the trolley approaching the tunnel, and the tram rising up
the hillside--but in a sense this fine cinematography is
self-defeating, because it creates a mood that "something's going to
happen"--and nothing does. The script too keeps feinting toward some
plot or action or trauma--and time after time not delivering. Not even
delivering the (I assume) theme of the movie, the characters' essential
misfit. The lead actors, both too pretty for their roles, didn't convey
any repression or agony, and the script didn't expose us to any.
Now, Donald Sutherland? That's another story. His character was so well fashioned, so perfectly played, that I wanted the camera to follow him.
"I am a lover of beasts and men." So Colin Farrell's writer, Arturo
Bandini, reveals his humanistic longings and along the way his
inexperience with humans. His love is the Mexican beauty Camilla,
played better than Katy Jurado ever could by Salma Hyeck, with whom he
fights from the cute meeting to the very end. But it is a love
nevertheless, with a strength often given only to those who fight
This is 1935 LA, land of love and art, with a whole bunch of racism thrown in between the abstractions. Arturo's being Italian throws a certain doubt on whether he could eventually marry this Mexican Camilla. Ask the Dust subtly explores a melting pot of racism, of course including the ever present persecution of the Jews. In fact, no one in the film has found a mate or a home yet anyway, so loneliness and disenfranchisement are always there.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's shots are each a marvel of painterly cinema, just the right brownish, noirish lighting and shadows to create a marginal world of dream and destitution where only love could create wealth. And what a love. These two leads are to the camera born, their dark good looks making them as much brother and sister as reluctant lovers. Farrell speaks almost as if he is narrating, which he does as well; his intonations are weighty in sotto voce, uncharacteristic of the more flamboyant characters he is used to playing. Hyeck has lusty dignity with a spicy stubbornness that makes you believe she is worthy of marrying this gringo and living happily ever after.
But that ending is the clichéd part of the story, as if all stories about writers must end with a tragedy. Towne, however, tempers the darkness with hope, an aspiration in abundant supply in lala land, but the compromised kind reminding us at the end of his towering Chinatown that it's out of our hands.
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