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 Ask the Dust
 Critic's Rating
 Date Posted
   8th June, 2006
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Cast: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland
Director: Robert Towne

Arturo Bandini: "What does happiness mean to you Camilla?"
Camilla: "That you can fall in love with whoever you want to, and not feel ashamed of it."

"Ask the Dust" is a film based on an American literary classic by John Fante best known for a series of semi-autobiographical novels (Dust is book #3) featuring his alter-ego Arturo Bandini. Fante's novels are almost always based in a Los Angeles under the siege of urbanisation; poverty, dysfunctional relationships and personal identity crisis were his favourite themes. Filmed almost 70 years after the book, "Ask the Dust" has been written for the screen and directed by Robert Towne, the screenwriter of the 1974 film-noir masterpiece "Chinatown." Given such lofty achievements, it's only reasonable to have high expectations. But the film barely meets us half-way. Although "Ask the Dust" nails the essence of immigrant yearnings for love and prosperity in a Depression-era America – primarily a credit to Fante's socially-conscious book – it is a straight-forward adaptation that remains faithful to the source material at the expense of cinema's greatest ally, invention. Towne's latest work has eloquence but his reluctance to challenge the stupor of narrative convention delivers the film to listlessness. Towne seems to be at the mercy of a complex book that needed breadth not brevity to function in the vital world of images and sound. This reminds me of any interesting anecdote (every artist has one, a revered artist like Robert Towne has many). Towne was originally offered $125,000 to write a screenplay for "The Great Gatsby" (1974), but Towne felt he couldn't better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; he accepted $25,000 to write his own story, "Chinatown," instead. By the same token, let us now find comfort in our vexation over why Towne did not chose to do an original story this time round.

Arturo Bandini (played with careful whimsy and seriousness by Colin Farrell) is a young writer who has moved to LA with dreams of instant fame, wealth and a pretty blonde girlfriend. He is a first generation Italian-American who regrets his last name because it alienates him from fellow Caucasian Americans. The story is set in the late 1930s when racism and class discrimination were rife (Bandini's landlady asks him if he's unemployed, Mexican or Jew before permitting him residence at her hotel). Crumpled paper balls, sleepless nights and several writer-blocks later Bandini meets the feisty Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek); he begins to write again. Camilla is both an inspiration and provocation for Bandini: he is mesmerized by her beauty; he wants her as man would but his sexual inexperience keeps their love-making at a distance. Here Towne demonstrates his skill with writing dialogue (I paraphrase Bandini: "Here I am to write the greatest novel ever…but I don't know enough of life or women. And I am afraid of both."), and he proceeds to meticulously set up the film's best scene: Camilla visits Bandini at his hotel room; frustrated by his timidity at reciprocating her physical advances she finally lashes out: "You can't fuck or write!" Bandini is livid and, in evidence of his manhood, he almost rapes Camilla. It's a powerful scene charged with the searing honesty of human emotions. Camilla and Bandini will eventually reconcile their differences but the film never recovers the magic, the brilliance of this scene. Then there is also the issue of supporting characters that may be mere narrative padding; they vanish from the story just as abruptly as they had appeared (the outstanding Donald Sutherland in the thankless role of Bandini's father-figure neighbour and an underused Justin Kirk as Camilla's best friend). Caleb Deschanel's beautiful painterly cinematography and Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira's lush music score will prove limited in offsetting our growing disappointment with the plot structure.
By its third act, "Ask the Dust" becomes preoccupied with telling a heavy-handed love story. With just a few minutes before credits roll, writer-director Robert Towne makes shortcuts to replace, as best as he can, nuance with instruction, subtlety with exposition. We spot the sign-posts miles ahead: the short-lived bliss, the repressed social anger, the hint of disease, the fight against a cruel fate, possible tragedy. Towne is precious about John Fante's original story so he sacrifices narrative resourcefulness to accommodate staunch adoration. And it takes him only so far. Few as they are, at least "Ask the Dust" has its moments. - Adnan Khan

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