Movie Review: Ask the Dust
Los Angeles is full of winners, losers and the mostly in-between kind of people. Everybody loves a good “winner” story. Last weekend was the Academy Awards and some of the winners were two guys who got their early start on a crappy sitcom (Crash director Paul Haggis and George Clooney on The Facts of Life), a chubby character actor who’s toiled for years in thankless parts (Capote‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a comedic actress who couldn’t sing and starred in mostly sappy pap (Walk the Line‘s Reese Witherspoon).
“Loser” stories are also very entertaining, like the bimbo starlet who gets too much plastic surgery and can’t figure out why her career is not taking off or the lousy musician who can’t get signed no matter how much posturing he does on-stage. And the in-between people, who keep the entertainment juggernaut rumbling happily along, can have interesting stories along the way, but no grand overall arc.
But there’s also a fourth kind of L.A. person: The one who should be a winner — celebrated and honored for being at the top of his craft — but struggles mightily for years as an in-betweener achieving a modicum level of success so they’re never actually losers except for the fact they aren’t ever nominated for any awards, etc. John Fante was that kind of person.
My wife introduced me to Fante. Not personally, of course, but she was the one who got me involved in his writing. He was… Well, I wish I could say something like he was “the quintessential Los Angeles writer,” but I haven’t read enough L.A. novelists to make a definitive statement like that. However, a history of California by Kevin Starr that I just finished (and which I’ll be reviewing next) describes Fante as wandering “the streets of the city, a fierce hunger raging in his heart for all that Los Angeles was promising, wanting so desperately a slice of the Big Orange.”
Fante’s novels are actually largely autobiographical tales with the author recast as Arturo Bandini, the son of poor Italian immigrants who moves to California to find his fame and fortune as a celebrated novelist. Bandini is all id and raw, naked emotion, giving in to his most primal nature. One moment he’s passionately romancing the woman of his dreams and the next he’s verbally assaulting her over some mis-perceived slight.
Ask the Dust was Fante’s first book and was heavily influenced by the work of another obscure writer, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Like Hunger, Ask the Dust is primarily one long interior monologue, so to choose it for a film adaptation over his other novels seems like it would be a daunting challenge. The book reads as though it’s almost unfilmable, unlike many of Fante’s later works.
However, writer/director Robert Towne took up the challenge and has been trying to get this film made for about 30 years. While Fante did make a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, he would never get to see his own novels translated to the screen (he died in 1983). The only other film made from one of his books is Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1989) by Belgian director Dominique Deruddere. It’s a decent film starring Joe Mantegna as Fante’s father, but lacking the passion of Fante’s writing and making it somewhat forgettable. It’s not even available on DVD now, which is a shame.
There’s a lot working against Ask the Dust to be a successful film. As I said, the interior nature of the novel doesn’t make it an obvious candidate for a movie adaptation. But Towne gets around that by focusing most of the action on the romance between Bandini and a poor Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez. Also, casting a crazy Irishman to play a crazy Italian sounds like an equally risky move, but Colin Farrell appears to have understood the passion running through Fante and captures it perfectly on screen. Bandini, despite his fits of rage, crippling insecurities and delustional flights of fancy, is never an unlikeable figure. He’s charming, witty and deep down a very good soul.
Salma Hayek is equally terrific, if not more so than Colin, as Camilla. After her obligitory slide into action films (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, After the Sunset) following her Oscar nomination (Frida), it’s good to see her in a real meaty part (tho’ I confess to not seeing all of Frida). Like Bandini, Camilla lives on the fringe of society — a brown-skin girl trying to make it in a white person’s world. She’s looking for her big break, too, although her dream is to get married. But for some indescribable, primitive lust, she’s drawn towards the one man who doesn’t seem to be capable of giving her what she needs most.
It’s the strength of these two leads that really make the film work. What the movie is lacking, though, is the underlying sense of joy that really propels Fante’s writing. Fante, writing about himself through Bandini, is very aware at the absurdity of his personality faults and manages to make us laugh not at him but with himself every time he blows his stack. The movie is just a little on the tad too sentimental side.
However, it’s a good film and a great adaptation. I can only hope that it can generate more interest in Fante, the way I was introduced to this almost nearly forgotten literary genius. If you’re not familiar with John Fante, do yourself a favor and check out his books on Amazon.com now.
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While I agree that there were aspects of the film that were good, and it was better than I expected, I think Towne really betrayed the spirit of the book to satisfy his own noir nostalgia. The spirit of the prose in Ask the Dust is really lost, partly in the way Farrell reads the lines (I really disagree with you when you say he captured Bandini perfectly – in my view, the wild emotional swings from adulation to hatred were simply not believably portrayed), but also in the general tone of the film. It’s just such a lively, witty novel, full of passion, at times really savage. The film just really did not capture this – and worse, didn’t want to capture it. Also, one of the primary facets of the story – that Bandini (who is not Fante; read Dreams From Bunker Hill, where Fante describes what his life was REALLY like during this period) both hates the working class Italian in him, and is proud of it, all of which is played off brilliantly with his radical love/hate relationship with Camilla/Los Angeles (city/woman of death and life – is underplayed. I just thing Towne WASP’d the story really unfairly, and ultimately used Fante’s story for his own purposes (Towne obviously longs for the good old days in L.A.). And, of course, this is very Hollywood of him!
You may already be familiar, but Ask the Dust is nicely read next to Day of the Locust by West – they both came out in 1939.