Ask the Dust
"Ask the Dust" was written and directed by Robert Towne, and made from John Fante's 1939 novel of the same name. It's about an agonizingly dull would-be novelist from Colorado named Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) who lives on skid row in Los Angeles and gets involved with two women - the Mexican Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek) and the Jew Vera Rifkin (Idina Menzel).
The story is simple, or perhaps I should say simple-minded. Arturo is broke, spends his last nickel on a cup of coffee served by the luscious Camilla, finds the cream rancid, insults her and leaves. Soon they are trading insults in the café and also in his boarding-house room, though he refuses to show any sexual interest in her, instead writing short stories that he sends to H.L. Mencken's American Mercury. Mencken, well into his dotage by then, keeps sending back money. It would have been better all around if he'd just sent rejection letters.
Anyway, Vera somehow finds Arturo, shows him the scars she's picked up in her life, and he quickly sleeps with her, only to lose her that afternoon in an earthquake. Really. And wait, there's more: He gets back with Camilla and takes her to a cabin on the Laguna shore for an idyllic interlude, but then - no kidding - she shows the first signs of T.B. and begins coughing her tragic life away. She dies, he buries her, match cut to him coming back in his new Packard as a successful novelist, end of movie.
This is a film that prompts us to ask a number of questions: 1. Why would either of these fascinating and beautiful women have the slightest interest in Arturo, who is such a slender stick figure the slightest bit of texture or depth would blow him away? 2. Why would Robert Towne, who's written everything from "Chinatown" to "Shampoo" to "The Missouri Breaks" to "Personal Best," along with uncredited work on "Bonnie and Clyde," among other good films, think the Fante novel was worth reading, much less turning into a film? 3. And why does Mr. Towne think he can direct a film? Even with the help of the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel "Ask the Dust" is ineptly staged, badly edited and filled with more embarrassing dialogue than a high-school sociology film on race relations.
Towne has directed Colin Farrell, who spends most of the film sitting at the typewriter, to not show even an ounce of emotion toward either woman - all right, there is one tear, quickly wiped away, near the end. Believe me, if Salma Hayek showed even the slightest interest in me I would gladly stop writing these reviews and move to Mexico with her; not so Mr. Farrell as Arturo, who when he does speak talks mostly about being of Italian descent. So, of course, are many others, most of them more talented than he. "Ask the Dust" is a film so filled with good intentions it chokes on them, and had it lasted one minute longer I would have choked as well.
One word about the title: There was a fad, in the 1930s, to choose 'evocative' titles for one's novels; think of Henry Roth's "Call it Sleep." "Ask the Dust" belongs to that same pretentious moment in literary history; thank God it's over.