Ask the Dust (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
John Fante's 1939 novel "Ask the Dust" is revered by those who love gritty stories about the less glamorous aspects of California's place in 20th century history. Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, it chronicles the relationship between a scholarly young Italian-American from Colorado who moves to L.A. to write the Great American Novel, and a beautiful and troubled young Mexican immigrant. Although there is an obvious mutual attraction, the consummation of their relationship is impeded by the fact that he's a virgin who's terrified of sexual failure, and she has a major drug problem. Not to mention the fact that she's in love with another guy!
Fante's novella has long been considered too literary, too elusive, and generally too emotionally unsatisfying to translate into a good movie, but if anyone was capable of transforming that vision into cinema it should have been Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown. Towne wrote and directed Ask the Dust, and he started off with some perfect hiring decisions. He enlisted Caleb Deschanel, one of the greatest cinematographers on the planet, to man his cameras, and he brought in Dennis Grassner to do the kind of production design he has always done for the Coen brothers. Those moves paid off in spades. The working class portions of L.A. look sleazy, brown, and hazy. The attention to period detail creates memorable scenes for Deschanel to film, and he does his usual brilliant job filming them.
Great screenwriter, great cinematographer, great production design, great source material ... so, it's a great movie, right?
Not if you ask the critics, the majority of whom panned it. Not if you ask IMDb voters, who score it a tepid 5.7. Not if you ask ticket buyers, who bought fewer than a million dollars worth. The film didn't connect with people.
So what went wrong?
Well we should not ignore the possibility that the cynics were right about this book being a poor candidate for a commercially viable movie, but we'll get back to that. There may have been other problems as well.
First, I wasn't very comfortable with the casting. The part of Arturo Bandini, the author's surrogate, first-person narrator of the story, a book-smart dreamer, was played by Colin Farrell ... because when you think of virginal, bookish, inhibited Italian-Americans, you automatically think of Colin Farrell. And then the part of Camilla, the 20-year-old Mexican waitress with a mercurial disposition, too much attitude, and a heavy dope habit, was played by Salma Hayek. Nice, reasonable, bright, sensible 40ish Salma Hayek. I kept wondering how she could work a hard job on her feet all day in the heat of summer, while also dying of consumption and smoking dope, and still look perfectly manicured in every way at the end of her double shift. Salma is one of the most beautiful and appealing women in the world, and she looks better now than she ever has, but maybe she was just too glamorous, too sophisticated, and too well-spoken for this role. Salma and Colin are both big stars and solid talents. I like them both, and I can see that their star power was intended to help the film, but they just didn't fit very well into these roles. Of course, Robert Towne's screenplay took some liberties with the book, and that allowed him to make the characters somewhat more suitable for Hayek and Farrell, but there was only so much he could do without losing the essence of the story.
Second, this was a very tricky story to adapt. The first half of the movie tracks closely with the written page, but then Towne ran into an inherent problem caused by the book's giant gaping flaw. Although author John Fante is supposed to be one of those experts at chronicling the seedy side of life, ala Charles Bukowski, the fact of the matter is that he made the character of Camilla a pot-head without knowing anything at all about the effects of marijuana. He clearly didn't do any scientific research, and if he based his character on actual dope smokers, it's obvious that they were junkies who also happened to smoke some pot, thus leading Fante to draw some inaccurate conclusions. Fante's entire concept of marijuana use was based upon the now-laughable ignorance of his own time. (Reefer Madness came out in 1936, and this story was written circa 1938 with the same fundamental misconceptions.) Presumably without having done his homework, Fante basically wrote the Camilla character as a junkie, except that he called heroin "marijuana." Since Fante's uninformed perceptions could not credibly be assimilated unfiltered into a modern film, screenwriter Towne had to make a difficult choice. He could leave the story the same but simply change the name of the drug with a search-and-replace, thus making Camilla a full-fledged heroin addict (which was consistent with her behavior), or he could severely soften the importance of her drug habit in the focus of the book. He chose the latter. The movie's Camilla smokes dope, but the effects of marijuana are only those which we now know to be realistic.
Once that decision had been made, Towne was left with a gaping hole in the narrative. The book's story ends tragically for Bandini and Camilla because of her increasingly erratic behavior brought on by her ... um ... pot habit - that is to say by the economic and psychological toll exacted by substance abuse. Towne thus had to make another decision: get rid of the tragedy and bring the lovers together, or find another cause for Camilla to leave Bandini's life. He really couldn't dispense with the tragedy and give the story a happy ending, because that would have destroyed the true noir essence of the story, hence the element that would inspire anyone to deem it worth filming in the first place. Therefore he had to find something else to cause the tragic ending. If chronic pot use wasn't to be the cause of Camilla's ultimate disappearance, what would be? Towne solved the problem by choosing to recombine Camilla's characteristics and that of another character, the bartender, Camilla's lover, who was dying of consumption in the book. As Fante originally wrote it, the bartender ends up alone in a shack in the desert, coughing his way to death. In Towne's adaptation, the bartender owns the shack in the desert, but it is Camilla who ends up dying of tuberculosis in that rickety bed.
Towne's decisions resulted in an emotionally unsatisfying story. Bandini (Colin Farrell) and Camilla (Salma Hayek) dance around one another for the first two thirds of the movie, seeming to be mean to one another just for the joy of meanness, even though we can see that they will eventually have to come together. Farrell and Hayek seemed to be movie characters mouthing movie dialogue rather than human beings acting with genuine motivations. The two of them kept asking each other why they were being so ornery to one another, but I never did hear either of them give a convincing or heartfelt explanation, and I found their fake contempt for one another to be both irritating and lacking in credibility. Later in the film, when the lead characters finally seem to be acting believably, and Salma was starting to look genuinely sick, the film finally seems to draw the audience in, but by that time my apathy had already caused me to pause the film twice. The narration just rambles and rambles, and spends a lot of time with eccentric secondary characters. Then, when the film finally goes somewhere, it goes straight into "dyin' woman" melodrama. That's right, Salma's character bickers with Farrell's for most of the film, then spends the last third dying of Ali McGraw Disease. Looked at from Bandini's point of view, he spends the first two thirds convinced he's not in love and pushing her away (although we can see that he's actually just in sexual terror of an aggressive and experienced woman), then he admits his love, and she immediately starts coughing. There's not a lot there for an audience to hang on to. Zero catharsis.
If I had been writing the screenplay, I would simply have replaced the word "marijuana" with the word "heroin," thus allowing Fante's story to remain completely intact. I'm convinced that would have worked better in terms of credibility and in terms of fidelity to the source material. On the other hand, I am not convinced that it would have made the movie successful, not even with a re-casting of the major roles. I have given some thought to Towne's screenwriting decisions, and I don't think they were the deal-breakers in this movie. Let's face it, the story would still have been emotionally unsatisfying either way. This source material is just not the grist for a commercial film.
I said we'd get back to this.
The best one can hope for from this story is a great film noir for the movie geeks and the arthouse crowd. And Towne already did that, or at least came close, so it doesn't really matter whether those decisions I discussed were right or wrong. Oh, I don't know if if would call it a "great" noir, but I have no trouble with calling it a "very good" one. When the film was over, many scenes haunted me and I wanted to see them again. And I'm not just talking about Salma's nude scenes (which are very nice indeed). I watched nearly the entire film a second time and, relieved of the responsibility to follow the story, paused to admire many details of the film's execution, as well as the ambitious way in which it addressed racism and the nature of being a true American. I disagree with those critics who called it a failure. Maybe they were correct, but even if so, I found it a noble attempt. It really left some lasting impressions with me, and in the final analysis I'm glad to have seen it.
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