Ask The Dust (2006 USA)

1939. John Fante writes “Ask the Dust” about a young man embarking on a literary career. Years later a young Robert Towne voraciously devours Fante’s novels, most of which attempt to paint a portrait of early 20th century Los Angeles. Decades pass. Towne embarks on his own literary career. He scores big with his script for Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, a LA noir influenced and flavoured by Fante. Towne and Fante personally meet in the 1970s. Fante dies in 1983. Two decades later Towne adapts “Ask the Dust” for the screen…

The 1930’s were a golden age for Los Angeles with its film industry and the potential of various other possibilities to become rich and famous and happy. People were arriving there hoping to fulfill their dreams. Expecting open arms and welcoming offers, there were only a few who managed to succeed and find their way to stardom. The majority were condemned to live starving, disillusioned and unwanted lives. They searched for a bit of respect in dirty bars and nasty hotel rooms. Young Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) arrives in wonderful La La Land, circa 1933, on a similar quest – to spread his charms around to get one of those beautiful wealthy women. And to write an excellent novel that would set him on a career path, having so far written a single short story published in an obscure anthology.

Wishing to create a romantic masterpiece, he seems to be unable to produce anything without experiencing it himself though. Occasionally he sends pieces of magazine stories to a local editor that helps him to survive. He is proud to present himself as an Italian but deep in his heart he truly feels his Italian origin is a burden. The little money and the courage to conquer the world he once had are all long gone, and watching his dream turning into a hangover, he holds one last nickel to spend. The coffee the waitress brings him is cold and sour. Then spitting a curse on her triggers a never-ending relationship of insults, unspoken excuses and a love concealed beneath. Camilla, being an uneducated girl trying to receive US citizenship through marriage, also carries her heavy cross of a non-perspective racial heritage.

Though she is of a stronger life experience, her situation as a beautiful Mexican woman is much harder to deal with than Arturo is able to realize. Is it obvious that Arturo eventually finds his inspiration to work on the novel? Is it possible that their love finally finds its place in the sun? Is it likely that their romance takes an unlucky turn? It is very surprising to find out that the chemistry between the two main characters, performed by Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, does not work. The relationship lacks the raw and authentic feelings. Hayek is always electrifying, but a tougher Phil Marlowe type would have suited Farrell better. Though he looks effective in a period costume, he seems lost trying to find the fragile world of a 20 year old dreamer balancing between a hidden love and just being true to himself.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s shots are each a marvel of painterly cinema, just the right brown-ish, noir-ish lighting and shadows to create a marginal world of dream and destitution where only love could create wealth. Ask the Dust subtly explores a melting pot of racism as well. In fact, no one in the film has found a mate or a home yet anyway, so loneliness and disenfranchisement are always there. Donald Sutherland, Justin Kirk and Eileen Atkins get little to do but they do it as best as they can. As for Farrell and Hayek’s relationship: it might have been wild but it is more likely what thunder and lightning are like without a storm: far from a real passion. Feelings just described but not deeply felt inside for the viewer. It is very sad that such a potentially interesting script was turned into the soon-to-be-forgotten average. (Unlike the gif below…no wonder the gringas are jealous of Salma!)

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