Love Story
By Noel Vera

Ask The Dust
Dir: Robert Towne (2006)

John Fante was a relatively unsung poet of '30s Los Angeles, his novel "Ask the Dust" - featuring Fante's alter-ego, the ambitious and insufferable Arturo Bandini - a relatively unknown but intense autobiographical rant against the City of Angel's racism and implacability, and his own self-loathing self. The book possibly influenced J.D. Salinger - his Holden Caulfield sounds like a younger, better-fed version of Bandini. Charles Bukowski - who calls Fante his "God"--describes his discovery of Fante thusly: "one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was… like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table." Michael Tolkin (who wrote "The Player") is an admirer; and writer-director Robert Towne nursed a longtime dream of adapting the book to film.


It wasn't easy. Towne had discovered Fante's work back in the early '70s, when he was researching his script for "Chinatown;" at one point, just after the first two "Godfather" films became a huge hit, Francis Ford Coppola had planned to do Fante's "Brotherhood of the Grape" using a script by Towne. Johnny Depp waited a year for Towne to get the financing together; Towne never did. Even Leonardo DiCaprio was at one point attached to the project.

Now, some thirty years since he read the book, Towne has finally managed to make his film, with Colin Farrell as Bandini and Salma Hayek as Bandini's inamorata, Camilla.

This Bandini isn't exactly Fante's - the self-loathing is largely absent, and much of the racist invectives Bandini and Camilla hurl at each other have been toned down. But Towne's recreation of the time and place is preternaturally uncanny - not just the sunlight and heat haze (the film was shot in South Africa, which does a superb job of evoking the relatively unpolluted desert air of '30s Los Angeles), but the look of an Angeleno street in the midday sun (the pedestrians still outnumbering motor vehicles), and the genteel way a white woman stands up to move away from Camilla (politely ignoring her glare) inside a movie theater.

Fante's novel is also full of Bandini's fantasies, rants, personal thoughts - difficult stuff to film (unless I suppose you ask Michel Gondry to turn it into an "it's all in his head" picture [come to think of it, Gondry might have been a good - or at least interesting - choice to adopt Macolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" one more time, maybe do a remake of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"]). Towne goes the old-fashioned (John Huston?) route, and focuses on the affair between Bandini and Camilla.

He's a so-so filmmaker (skilled, not riveting) and a superb director of actors; he manages to make Farrell convincingly Italian (Towne in an interview notes that Farrell is a Black Irish - an ethnicity that shares with the Italian Americans a put-upon lower-class Catholicism Farrell is able to channel), and he gives Hayek what I would consider her most fully realized role as a beautiful woman (which she is; something you don't quite realize in "Frida," what with that distracting prosthetic brow). This may be at variance with what Fante originally wrote, but it's also the frankest, bleakest, most unsentimental portrait of lovers I can remember in recent films.

The eroticism is direct, if muted, as in the scene where Hayek lies on Farrell's bed and admits she's not wearing underwear - better than actual nudity is the sexual electricity between Farrell and Hayek, an electricity all the more intense because it crackles in the midst of the stormy, multifaceted antagonism roiling between them (you can't believe on how many grounds the two battle each other: Italian versus Mexican, citizen versus immigrant, literate versus illiterate, man versus woman). The two in their struggles are like a microcosm of Los Angeles' marginalized classes, one ethnic group struggling to gain dominance over the other.

The tragedy is that the two share more things in common than they do things different (their dark skin, their impoverished lifestyle, the way they stand outside white, middle-society), which ideally should draw them together; instead, Bandini as often as not uses that common experience to read Camilla's vulnerabilities better, tear into her more effectively - Camilla as often as not responding in kind.

And because they are so alive as characters we buy the relatively romanticized ending - or at least the ending here seems more palatable than when something similar is presented in other romantic movies (we believe in their romance because we believe in them as people, we believe in them because we see that they can be as flawed and hateful to each other as anyone we know - as we ourselves sometimes are).

There's a subtext to all this that helps explain, and ultimately, forgive Towne his less-than-faithful version of Fante's masterpiece: that this is a seventy-year-old veteran filming the work of a thirty-year-old angry young man. If Towne had managed to make the film as he intended, twenty years ago, maybe the results would have been closer to what Fante wrote; as is, there's something fascinating about the way Towne softens Fante's hard edges.

It's as if he had lived with (come to know, learned to love) the characters for too long not to be more forgiving of their foibles, suffered too much of the same things they suffered not to accord them some measure of compassion, even solace--a time they can spend with each other, for example (the trip to the beach was much sketchier in the original, and Camilla's illiteracy is a Towne invention). It's as if this older man has taken the unforgiving vision of the younger, angrier man, shaken his head fondly, and - well, rearranged the picture a little, to better suit the view from where he's sitting. The result isn't great art, but it's interesting, even moving, art - you can't help but feel that while this may not be the apex of Towne's career, it is some kind of valedictory statement, a summing up of his view of the world.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 02/16/07.
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March 2, 2007