Moviedrome Redux: Robert Towne’s ‘Ask the Dust’

❉ Nick Clement continues his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities. 

The beautifully melancholic romantic drama Ask the Dust was adapted for the screen and directed by cinema legend Robert Towne, who of course is the writer of classics including Chinatown, The Last Detail, The Yakuza, and Shampoo, to name only a bunch. Towne had long cherished the original 1939 novel by John Fante, so this labor of love was a true passion project for the storyteller, who conveyed a honeyed and romanticized vision of life in Los Angeles around the time of the Great Depression.  Ask the Dust was part of that insane run of films for Colin Farrell (Intermission, A Home at the End of the World, Alexander, The New World, Miami Vice, Cassandra’s Dream, In Bruges), and he brought a restless quality to the role of Arturo Bandini, an Italian immigrant who is attempting to write the next great American novel while living in a rundown apartment in Bunker Hill. He unexpectedly falls in love with a Mexican immigrant named Camilla (Salma Hayek), who has dreams of escaping the only life she knows.

Set specifically around the time of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, Ask the Dust is a hot-blooded narrative given soft, textual qualities by Towne as director. Camilla is a fiery, beautiful café waitress who aspires one day to rise above her current socioeconomic standing, to make something of herself, to give her and her future children a place and chance in the world. Arturo is a struggling writer who comes to Los Angeles with stars in his eyes and the voice of H.L. Mencken in his head, all in an effort of launching his writing career. The complex relationship that develops between Arturo and Camilla is sometimes hard to understand in the normal context of clear-cut character motivation; this story lives in the thorny emotional undercurrents that seek to upend romantic pairings before they’ve had the chance to fully blossom.

Hayek may have been too old for the role, but she brought a passionate sexuality that’s rarely been glimpsed on screen from her. It’s almost as if certain filmmakers have been scared to unleash her full, red-hot potential, but in Ask the Dust, Towne got a performance from her that’s full of life and tenacity and zest. I love how Farrell and Hayek throw barbed zingers at each other during their courting process, and when it’s finally time for the two of them to take it to the next level, the inherent drama in the story creates speed-bumps that they don’t see coming. The two of them had a very distinct type of chemistry which wasn’t just of a sensual nature; there was a respect and playfulness that was evident which made them feel all the more tangible as people. And then, when tragedy hits, you feel their respective pain.

Ask the Dust was stylishly lensed by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural, The Passion of the Christ, The Right Stuff), and each and every shot is a model of visual perfection, with a quality of light that’s stunning to behold. This film feels as if it had to be made by Towne, a movie that clearly was born out of a long-time admiration for the material, and a film that only a Gentleman of the Cinema could have gotten made. Everything about his trapped-in-amber aesthetic approach to Ask the Dust feels appropriately borrowed from another time, and yet, spruced up with subtle, modern technique. From the playful and elegant opening moments where pages turn in a book to reveal the opening credits, we’re then whisked out the window by a bravura overhead shot through the Hollywood Hills, and into the apartment of the main character –this spirited sense of storytelling remains on display despite the sadness of the thematic content.

The evocation of time and place by legendary production designer Dennis Gassner (Barton Fink, Bugsy, 1917), especially on a somewhat limited budget ($25 million has been reported), is extraordinary to behold, and what’s even more fascinating about the project is that it was shot on location in South Africa, where a massive set re-creating downtown Los Angeles circa 1930 was built from the ground up, which was then enhanced with CGI brush-ups during post-production. The soulful musical score by Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira hits all of the appropriate emotional moments. Ask the Dust will require the right type of viewer to appreciate all of its considerable merits, a viewer who has been steeped in film noir and the trials and tribulations of the lonely writer within literature and cinema.

Not many people could likely have gotten this film made in the manner that it was; credit Towne’s long-standing relationship with producer Tom Cruise as a key ingredient to getting this wistful piece of cinema green-lit. Ask the Dust had a very long gestation period as a Hollywood screen property, as the rights originally belonged to Mel Brooks, who eventually let them lapse. Towne met Fante sometime in the 1970s, and despite finishing the script in the early 1990s, it would take until 2006 for the film to hit screens. Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer were at various points set to star, with Hayek, apparently always the #1 choice, accepting the role eight years after it was initially offered to her. Sadly, the film was met with mostly dismissive reviews and paltry box-office earnings, and has only been released as a standard issue, bare bones DVD release. The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Shout!, Olive, Eureka, Indicator, or Twilight Time should be looking into putting this underrated title out on Blu-ray. As of this writing, it’s currently streaming as a no-cost-rental-option in high definition via Amazon Prime.

❉ ‘Ask The Dust’ is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime, £3.49 – £5.99.

❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

Become a patron at Patreon!