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Movie Review: Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust – Laughing at Your Own Funeral

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He hurried away, leaving her looking after him, speaking words he lost in flight. He walked half a block. He was pleased. At least she had asked him. At least she had identified him as a man. He whistled a tune from sheer pleasure. Man about town has universal experience. Noted writer tells of night with woman of the streets. Arturo Bandini, famous writer, reveals experience with Los Angeles prostitute. Critics acclaim book finest written.

John Fante, Ask the Dust (1939)

In writer-director Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's novel Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is an Italian-American from a small town in Colorado, where he grew up being called "Wop" and "Dago" and "Greaser," who arrives in Depression-era Los Angeles hoping to become a great writer. He pours his heart out to H.L. Mencken, editor of The American Mercury, both in his head and in submission letters accompanying short stories. (One letter is so stirring that Mencken removes the salutations and publishes it as fiction.) Arturo is dying for experiences he can write about but he's too diffident to go out and get them. He has exactly one bold move: he gives a signed copy of a magazine containing one of his stories to his landlady as a way of sweet-talking her into renting him a room despite the fact that he's unemployed; he gives another to Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), an ember-eyed Mexican-American waitress at a local bar where he goes to spend his last buffalo nickel. (His valise is half full of copies of the magazine.)

Arturo is boyishly open-faced but so thin-skinned he's not in fact very nice, notwithstanding the fact that he declares himself a lover of man and beast alike. Ethnic prejudice has distorted his feelings — he wants to make a name for himself that he won't be ashamed of. In Los Angeles, Bandini is sometimes taken to be Mexican, which to Arturo is even "worse" than Italian. All the same, he can't get over his attraction to Camilla, who is almost as touchy as he is. She's not an intellectual (she can't read English; the story Arturo tries to impress her with is doubly wasted on her) and so her pride and susceptibility aren't as neurotic or morbid as Arturo's. She's positively fiery, but also down-to-earth; her temper seems to intensify the pleasure she promises, pleasure Arturo is too unsure to grab, though she's offering.

Camilla doesn't have Arturo's mean streak, but in some ways she's even more hesitant about him than he is about her. She'd like to sleep with him but is also holding out for an opportunity to make a better life. To her, the chief opportunity appears to be marriage to a blond American-American named Sammy White (Justin Kirk), although he occasionally hits her and has TB besides. When Camilla realizes she's in love with Arturo, she doesn't tell him as much but asks if he'd ever consider changing his name — she wouldn't want to raise her kids with the last name Bandini. (She has fancifully registered her car under the name "Camilla Lombard.") Arturo points out that he hasn't proposed.

It takes Arturo and Camilla three-quarters of the picture to get together because they're so bristly they can barely see each other without fighting. The text cues us that their problems arise from the difficulties of "ethnicity" in the pre-assimilation era, but the wonderful thing about the picture is that Towne plays the tension between them for comedy rather than pathos. The script makes ethnic prejudice in Southern California palpable (e.g., in Newport Beach, Arturo and Camilla sit down to watch the 1934 movie Dames — in which Ruby Keeler announces her independence with the old catchphrase, "I'm free, white, and 21" — and an Anglo girl moves away from Camilla) but it stops short of turning the lovers into victims. (The treatment of the immigrant subject, with its turbid mix of idealism and resentment, is reminiscent of some of Paul Muni's "accent" melodramas, Bordertown [1935] and Black Fury [1935], though it's much less heavy-handed.)

Arturo and Camilla have more stature than, say, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far From Heaven (2002) precisely because we see that they're primarily victims of their own reactiveness. Fante and Towne give them enough existence to make mistakes, and so we can identify with them without sinking into self-pity. Because they're trapped in their emotions, Arturo and Camilla can't see that they're romantic-comic sparring partners: every insult and outrage, every missed opportunity, binds them more tightly. (Arturo can't keep the ardor out of his voice when he's belittling Camilla for wearing huaraches.) Farrell and Hayek both get the joke, and understand that it can't be played too openly for laughs. Arturo and Camilla have to want to be in a grand romance that they helplessly shut themselves out of. The poor fools eye each other with tormented longing while from the outside they appear as married as they could get without a license or ceremony.

Colin Farrell is incredibly good, considering he's nobody's idea of a bashful or sexually inexperienced man. (This is the guy who made a sex video of himself in which he pauses while eating his girlfriend out to say, "Holy fuck! My breakfast, lunch, and dinner right here, I'm not even fucking joking.") Farrell is an unpredictable little bullet of a star. In Minority Report (2002), he nakedly enjoyed stealing scenes from Tom Cruise, as if acting were a competitive sport played one-on-one and aerobically fast, like racquetball. And in Intermission (2003), his ferociously physical hooliganism — swinging a shovel as he ran from a crime scene through traffic — embodied a certain sociopathological allure that has been central to movies since forever. He seemed born for the medium, as much as James Cagney.

I can see why these supporting performances would have made directors think Farrell can do anything, but he can't. In Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), and Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006), his limitations became stunningly clear. He lacks the breadth of personality to play an epic hero, even a flawed one. And apart from The Recruit (2003), in which the role of a filial apprentice justified his junior quality, his physical assurance isn't all-purpose enough for action heroes. Even his suits in Miami Vice seemed bigger than he did. (There's more than one set in the game of stardom; Tom Cruise retakes the lead.) When Farrell experiences doubt while playing a commander of men, he suddenly seems puny; the walls of those big-budget movies collapse inward on him.

On the positive side, it may be that Farrell's face is too particularly expressive for a generic knight in such overblown productions. His Alexander was embarrassing but no more so than Clark Gable's performance as Parnell. Farrell isn't dismissible, he's simply less adaptable than we might have expected. He's resourceful enough, however, that miscasting per se isn't the worst thing that can happen to him. In A Home at the End of the World (2004), he actually benefited from being miscast. His role as a gayboy's dream of a bisexual best friend — a pure-hearted stud who never says no and is never put out by his lovers' complexes and tantrums — was a pink smoke ring. Farrell obviously had to hold back to play that utterly innocent, blocked manchild, but the obviousness made him amusing to watch. The confusions that played on his face were so clearly crafted that I was drawn to the working actor even though I rejected the character he was playing. Something similar is going on in Ask the Dust, except that I don't reject the character.

John Fante worked in the tradition of the expostulating modern bard, which includes Whitman, Henry Miller, and Charles Bukowski (who wrote the 1979 introduction to the copy I read). Consequently, the book centers more securely than the movie on Arturo's emergence as a published novelist. The love story feels secondary and is at times somewhat tiresome because Arturo and Camilla, who is masochistically in love with Arturo's rival, never seem as movie-ishly right-and-wrong for each other as Farrell and Hayek do.

This is the way in which the old-movie romantic Robert Towne brings so much to the project. As his script for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) still shows, Towne does haunted nostalgia better than anybody. Ask the Dust is another Los Angeles story about doomed lovers in the '30s, and Towne has given the book's dialogue a brilliant polish for the screen (including an exchange between Arturo and Camilla about the color of his eyes that is the best on the subject I can remember, and no less romantic for being bitter). Towne's love of the era and his tough-guy jocularity give everything a dark shine, including the quietly anguished episodes involving Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), a drunk who cadges nickels off Arturo, and the garrulously anguished ones involving Vera Rivken (Idina Menzel), a mad literary groupie who stalks him.

The old-Hollywood combination of "sultry" and "funny" could make otherwise unremarkable stories like To Have and Have Not (1944) and Gilda (1946) teasingly memorable. You know that the villains will be vanquished and the lovers will end up together, but the oddly heterogeneous tone gives the story suspense on a different level: you never know how any scene will play. The story may be a political melodrama, but the characters interact with the bantering suggestiveness of a burlesque show. The pretense that the moviemakers are primarily interested in telling the story is perhaps hypocritical, but you can't take it seriously enough to resent it.

Towne's coke-dealer redemption romance Tequila Sunrise (1988), starring Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer, runs more in this pop vein. By contrast, Ask the Dust, starting with Fante as its source, is a tragicomic romance that has both feet planted outside the world of movies, and fiction, too. In this movie, as we know from our family histories, the melting pot is not only an idealistic metaphor but a fact that is as hard to accommodate yourself to as any fact of life. Towne has a perhaps unique ability to make this ill-fated movie romance classically seductive while doing full justice to its authentic subject.

Towne's canniness as a writer and casual sophistication do wonders for the actors. Everything that can seem undersized about Farrell works for the role of Arturo, with whom we can empathize because of his bad behavior, which is both amusing and shocking — e.g., his spiteful gesture of pouring a complimentary beer into the cuspidor because Camilla lied when she said she'd read his story. Even Arturo's measliest qualities, the way his walk changes after he's maliciously poured a cup of bad coffee over the nickel he left on the table to pay for it, are charged with his bewildered emotionality, including the sexual drive he can't carry through on. Farrell's diminutiveness emphasizes the character as written here, and his eyes, which can seem beady with anxiety, or pleading under the circumflex brow, are just right for a man who's anxious that he won't be able to show the world what he's almost sure he has in him.

Farrell fuses his imagination with Arturo's pettiness and fearfulness, and the way they're knotted up inside with his ambition. Though this isn't made explicit in the movie, Towne and Farrell nail Fante's acuteness about the ambiguity of whether a man's ambition makes him a bigger or smaller person. In the book, Arturo soliloquizes: "War in Europe, a speech by Hitler, trouble in Poland, these were the topics of the day. What piffle! You warmongers, you old folks in the lobby of the Alta Loma Hotel, here is the news, here: this little paper with all the fancy legal writing, my book! To hell with that Hitler, this is more important than Hitler, this is about my book."

Hayek can be more relaxed than Farrell because she's better suited to her role, which is also less complex. She's luscious as hell, but Camilla's yearnings are touchingly ordinary, her self-seeking innocently transparent, and Hayek gives her a lovely, simple-hearted plaintiveness, and more gallantry than Arturo as well. She can be outright funny, when she accepts Arturo's invitation to Newport by saying, "It's your funeral!" But she's more distinctively memorable when she asks Arturo to come to bed. The weariness that cracks her voice resonates with the exasperation we've all felt with our lovers, ourselves, our absurdly complex entanglements — why can't this just be easy?

The characters brought in for contrast are a mixed bag. Justin Kirk has an indelible scene in which he advises Arturo how to "break" Camilla. (He displays a recognizable male authority but I can imagine women getting queasy at his horseman's gestures.) The episodes involving Vera Rivken, however, contain a floridly literary psychology that is both dank and obscure (same as in the book), and Menzel's performance is, perhaps inevitably, too self-conscious.

At the same time, Vera brings out different sides of Arturo in his confrontations with unromantic reality. Farrell tops himself when Arturo is in Vera's Long Beach apartment and the disturbed woman begs him not to hurt her. Arturo, trying to reason with unreason, argues, "Why would I hurt you? Why would I bother? I don't even love you!" That revealing syllogism (Towne's invention), which Farrell makes unself-consciously articulate in a way perfect for the angry wannabe Arturo, encapsulates everything I remember about being young, insensitive, and desperate for experience. It's the most perfectly horrible movie line I've ever identified so closely with.

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About Alan Dale