By Noel Vera
Ask The Dust
Dir: Robert Towne (2006)
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
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.
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
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.
First published in Businessworld, 02/16/07.
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