Colin Farrell + Salma Hayek in a Love Story Set in Old L.A.
Ask the Dust (2006) is one of the most engaging romantic dramas I've seen in a long time. It's a beautiful, poignant period piece set in 1930s Los Angeles. Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek are attractive as the lovers, and there are strong supporting performances, particularly by Idina Menzel and Donald Sutherland. The film was written and directed by Robert Towne (Chinatown), and the cinematographer was Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Passion of the Christ).
In the movie, Arturo Bandini (Farrell) is a young Italian-American who flees a small town in Colorado and comes to L.A. to write the great American novel. Down to his last nickel, he goes to a café to buy a cup of coffee and meets a Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez (Hayek). Arturo and Camilla fall in love, but their relationship is stormy.
Los Angeles as a State of Mind
L.A. has long been a place to which people come from elsewhere to try to reinvent themselves, and Ask the Dust captures that notion better than any film I know. Many such people end up living in poverty without family or friends, waiting for death. The movie shows us an example of this kind of Angeleno: Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), Arturo's neighbor at the cheap Alta Loma hotel.
One night Arturo meets Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel in a moving performance), a lonely Jewish woman who works as a housekeeper. Eventually he visits her at her apartment near the Long Beach Pike, now long gone, but then the West Coast's Coney Island. After a bittersweet experience with Vera, Arturo is strolling along the Pike's boardwalk when the March 10, 1933, earthquake hits, killing over 100 people.
But the film's main focus is on Arturo and Camilla. His struggle to become a professional writer makes it doubtful that he'll ever earn much money, while she's running out of time to marry and have children with an Anglo capable of giving her offspring a boost up the socioeconomic ladder. The odds against these two dreamers achieving their goals as a couple seem long, and the story here is about how all this works out in Depression-era L.A.
Movie Based on John Fante's Novel
Robert Towne's film Ask the Dust is adapted from the book of the same title, which arguably records the milieu of old Los Angeles better than any other novel. John Fante (1909-1983) wrote that book, which was semiautobiographical with the character Arturo Bandini functioning as the author's alter ego. The literary protagonist has a rich inner life that is not fully reflected in the movie, and Towne took some liberties with Fante's story to give it a three-act screenplay structure and a more satisfying ending. The film isn't as good as the novel, but I still recommend seeing it whether you've read the book or not.
Incidentally, Fante sometimes wrote for film and television. The best-known movie for which he received screenwriting credit was Walk on the Wild Side(1962).
A Good Audio Commentary
The DVD contains a feature-length audio commentary by writer-director Robert Towne and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and I found it to be interesting and informative. Towne says that except for two indoor sequences filmed on L.A. sound stages, the entire movie was shot in South Africa because it was cheaper. Deschanel claims the light and vegetation there are quite similar to that of Southern California. The impressive Long Beach Pike sequence was filmed at a South African beach, and the Karroo semiarid plateau stood in for California's Antelope Valley.
One of the most lyrical parts of the movie is where Arturo and Camilla go for a moonlight skinny-dip in the ocean. I was completely convinced of the scene's realism, but Towne and Deschanel reveal that Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek were actually miles inland in the South African casino resort town of Sun City, which has a manmade lagoon with a wave-making machine.
Towne also explains that racism is the basis for Arturo's objection to Camilla's use of marijuana. The background here is that most Anglos were extremely prejudiced against Mexicans, going so far as to blame them for the Great Depression. Also, at that time Anglos identified marijuana use as being a characteristic of the Mexicans. In this context, Towne mentions the quintessential Mexican folk song "La Cucuracha," which has lyrics about the cockroach that can't get around anymore because it doesn't have any marijuana to smoke. His point is that Arturo doesn't really care that marijuana is a drug, but he doesn't like for Camilla to smoke it because this behavior reminds him of her Mexicanness.
Next Page: A Worthwhile Making-Of Featurette - The Details for the Ask the Dust DVD