Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust
Director: Robert Towne
Screenplay: Robert Towne (based on the novel by John Fante)
Stars: Colin Farrell (Arturo Bandini), Salma Hayek (Camilla Lopez), Donald Sutherland (Hellfrick), Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Hargraves), Idina Menzel (Vera Rivkin), Justin Kirk (Sammy), Dion Basco (Patricio), Jeremy Crutchley (Solomon), William Mapother (Bill), Tamara Craig Thomas (Sally)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S.
Ask the Dust DVD
Ask the DustWriter/director Robert Towne, who is still best known as the writer of Chinatown despite that film’s having been released 32 years ago, has wanted to direct a film version of John Fante’s semi-autobiographical sophomore novel Ask the Dust for, well, about as long as Chinatown has been in existence. I have noted in previous reviews my general trepidation about projects that filmmakers have been dying to make for decades because (a) there is usually a good reason these projects have taken so long to get off the ground and (b) the filmmaker is often too close to the subject by the time he finally makes the film. Ask the Dust does nothing to change my mind.

A sad interracial love story set amidst the dusty decay of the Bunker Hill neighborhood in 1930s Los Angeles (meticulously recreated with sets in South Africa), Ask the Dust has every reason to be intense, passionate, and heart-rending, yet it is somehow none of those things. The story involves Fante’s fictional alter ego, first-generation Italian-American Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), arriving in Los Angeles with a suitcase, a few hundred dollars, and the dream of becoming the “Great American Novelist.” He takes up residence in a dilapidated flophouse populated by dying men like Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), a dying old man whose various ailments seem to have softened some of his brain matter.

The heart of the story, though, is in Bandini’s relationship with Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), an illiterate Mexican waitress at the local café with whom he is immediately smitten. Unfortunately, their connection is made in a series of fits and starts, characterized by equal measures of attraction and repulsion, sympathy and derision. When they first meet, Bandini is at the end of his rope monetarily and emotionally, thus he is hardly on his best behavior when Camilla serves him cold, thin coffee. This leads to a long series of insult trading and barely repressed desire: he mocks her shoes, she tells him she hopes he dies of heart failure; he pours coffee all over the table, and she later responds by tearing up his pride and joy--his one published short story--right in front of him; he calls her racial slurs, she scorns his youthful naiveté.

The underlying tension between Bandini and Camilla, which moves closer and closer to the surface as the film progresses, is their respective races. Bandini is proud of his Italian heritage and chafes when Camilla asks him if he would ever consider changing his name to something that sounds more “American.” Camilla, on the other hand, is an object of prejudice and racism, a point that is clearly depicted (if not a bit overstated) when she and Bandini go to a movie and the woman next to her gets up and moves (it doesn’t help that the movie they chose to see, 1934’s Dames, is infected with the casual racism of so many movies of its era, with Ruby Keeler cheerily proclaiming the benefits of her whiteness). In a bid to lose her ethnic identity, Camilla has spent her time with only white men, including the gruff, insensitive bartender (Justin Wright) at the café where she works, an action that Bandini finds reprehensible.

Part of the film’s problem is that Bandini and Camilla’s growing relationship lacks a center. You never get the sense that these two people should feel the need to muster the emotional energy they expend on each other. There are so many false starts, in fact, that it is easy to become impatient with their behavior. In many ways, they are like school children taunting each other on the playground to mask their mutual affection, an approach that is amusing at first, but quickly grows tiresome and repetitive.

Bandini learns to appreciate Camilla and what he feels for her only after he becomes briefly involved with Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel), a deeply scarred--literally and figuratively--woman who follows him home one night and drunkenly throws herself at him. Unfortunately, Vera is the most alive character on screen, the only one who really hums with the weight of misfortune and thwarted dreams. In her own way, Vera is the character who truly embodies the film’s vision of Depression-era Los Angeles as a graveyard for lost souls.

This is partially due to the central performances by Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Farrell is one of the most consistently intriguing actors of the past 10 years, but he is woefully miscast here as a first-generation Italian-American. (On a side note, isn’t it a bit ironic that a film about the infecting nature of racism doesn’t cast a Latin actor for the role of Bandini, but rather a marquee-name actor of Irish descent?) Farrell looks uncomfortable and unsure in the role, as if he’s never quite grounded in Bandini’s motivations and desires, which causes him to overplay some scenes, especially when his character is irritated. Hayek is better and more natural, but even she is dragged down by the story’s forced third-act heartbreak, which requires her to assume the role of dying beauty forever enshrined in the protagonist/author’s haunted memory.

Ask the Dust DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stero
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by writer/diretor Robert Towne and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel
  • “The Making of Ask the Dust featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Video
    Release DateJuly 25, 2006

    Ask the Dust is presented in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer, although it’s been slightly opened up to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio from its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The muted color scheme, which relies heavily on browns, blacks, and sepia tones to convey both the period of the 1930s and the ravages of the Great Depression, are perfectly rendered. The image is sharp, clean, and well-detailed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is also well done. Although the film’s soundtrack is composed primarily of dialogue and ambient sound effects, there are a few scenes that do a nice job of utilizing the surround channels, including a rumbling earthquake sequence and a midnight swim sequence that envelopes you with crashing waves.
    The screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Robert Towne and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is worth listening to just to hear two of modern cinema’s greats talking about what they love. Even though I didn’t ultimately think much of the film itself, it was a real pleasure listening to Towne discuss what he was trying to accomplish and how he went about doing it. “The Making of Ask the Dust” is a fairly routine 15-minute featurette. It includes interviews with Towne and Deschanel, as well as actors Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, and Justin Wright and costume designer Albert Wolsker. Towne talks among other things about how Johnny Depp had originally wanted to star as Bandini, and he also tells an interesting anecdote about how John Fante blamed Hitler for the failure of his novel to reach mainstream recognition. The original theatrical trailer is included in nonanamorphic widescreen.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Classics

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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