Ask The Dust
Patrick Z McGavin in Park City                                                             03 March 2006

Dir/scr Robert Towne. US. 2005. 117mins.

Robert Towne returns with an evocative, nuanced adaptation of John Fante's Depression-era novel Ask The Dust, a visually lustrous and imaginatively staged film that is given piercing depth of feeling from leads Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek.

Fante's autobiographical 1939 work was a dominant literary influence on Towne's greatest achievement, his script for Roman Polanski's Chinatown. His new picture, a story of love, loss and quietly aching desperation, returns to the director's recurrent theme of prickly, defiant individuals caught in the tragic underside of Hollywood ambition. It's not a post-modern work like say the Coen brothers' Barton Fink.

Remarkably, the film was shot in South Africa, with 1930s Los Angeles beautifully conjured through artfully drawn sets, stylised backdrops and computer imagery. Consequently at times it feels as though it were unfolding on a set, though the effect only heightens the appreciation of, and superb recreation of, classic, old Hollywood.

The movie plays on large themes - race, class and artistic creativity - though the rhythm and tone is tender, even quietly observed. Towne strives for Fante's lyrical realism, and the movie is emotionally deceptive in the way it constantly frustrates logic and expectation.

A halting love story that never quite ignites, the movie is probably too tentative and enigmatic for mainstream crowds, and despite the artistry and seriousness, its down beat is a clear turnoff. Ask The Dust kicked off the Santa Barbara Film festival, played Sundance and opens in the US on March 17 through Paramount Classics. A more receptive audience is probably going to be found in Europe, particularly because of Farrell and Hayek.

Arturo Bandini (Farrell, looking thin and impressive), is Fante's alter ego, a sweet, good-natured striver emotionally scarred by the strong anti-Italian prejudice he encountered growing up in Colorado.

Avid to find his style and voice as a young writer while experiencing thrill and pleasure in Los Angeles, circa 1934, Bandini lives in a one-room hotel, at the Alta Loma, in Bunker Hill, surrounded by a group of beautiful dreamers.

Like most Towne protagonists, he carries a privileged aura of rebellion and determination. His sponsor is the great iconoclastic writer and editor HL Mencken (the voice of film historian and biographer Richard Schickel). Towne is not afraid to draw him in less than flattering ways, painting him as callow, emotionally needy, sullen and strangely withdrawn.

At the start, down to his final nickel, Bandini is jolted by his encounter with Camilla (Hayek), a beautiful Mexican waitress. "You're vulgar, loud and angry," she says. The strange, discursive movement of their relationship grounds the movie emotionally. Early on Bandini is strangely unable to connect with her earthy provocations. He insults her, condescends to her or acts stupidly during their first sexual encounter during a beautifully shot ocean rendezvous.

Jealous of her relationship with a bartender (Kirk), he falls into the clutches of Rita (Menzel), a beautiful, tragically scarred Jewish princess.

Towne's best known scripts ( The Last Detail , Shampoo ) centred on male vanity and bravado, though ever since his first work as a director, Personal Best (1982), he has shown himself as a marvellously sympathetic and revealing director of women.

Playing alternate variations on the tragic heroine, Hayek and Menzel are heartbreaking, drawn with an edge, volatility and tenderness that gather a colourful and vibrant poignancy and depth.

Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is both haunting and lilting, swooning in the radiant light, though compelling, even terrifying, in the soft-register of the night. Dennis Gassner's elegant, burnished production design is also a knockout.

The final sections of Ask The Dust are a bit too diffusive and distracted, the plot jumping from place to place, and it dilutes the power and suggestiveness of much of what is good and original about the movie.

Towne makes his living writing scripts such as Days Of Thunder or Mission: Impossible. Realising this long deferred dream project, Ask The Dusk is finally about the ineffable. It is a powerful, welcome reminder of his peculiar, idiosyncratic talent.