By Madelyn Ritrosky
Say "Robert Towne" and people usually think "Chinatown." Everyone seems to mention that film as screenwriter Towne's signature work. Heck, it's a signature work of Hollywood, and an indelible exploration into the emerging character of L.A. between World War I and II.
In 1974, Chinatown reawakened interest in the cinematic dynamics of film noir - those dark, desperate tales of alienation, murder, and deceit that emerged out of '40s Hollywood amidst the uncertainties of postwar America.
Towne wrote "Chinatown" but was not the director. (Roman Polanski had that honor.) Towne is primarily a screenwriter and "script doctor," with such films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Shampoo," "The Firm," and the "Mission Impossible" films in his credits.
But with his latest work, "Ask the Dust", he both penned the adaptation and shuffled everyone behind the camera from the director's chair. This is only the fourth directing job of his career in Hollywood, which goes back to the early '60s - though he didn't direct until 1982?s Personal Best.
Ask the Dust has just had its world premiere and Towne spoke about the film and his career at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Ask the Dust is based on a 1939 novel by John Fante, with his work lingering in obscurity for years. Towne actually read the novel in 1971 when he was researching Depression-era Los Angeles for the Chinatown script. After getting "sidetracked in the '70s," he wrote a script which "everybody" rejected as a "downer" or as "racist." Even the interest of Johnny Depp, who was a name actor but did not have the star power he does today, took the project nowhere.
Then, about five years ago, an agent whom Robert Towne respected, sent him "a kid" who he thought could do the lead role and who expressed keen interest in the script, Colin Farrell. But that's as far as it went.
Meanwhile, Salma Hayek had turned down the co-starring role nine years ago because the story,about prejudice against both Italians and Mexicans, was too close to home andshe wanted more crossover roles.
But now, "Ask the Dust" has just premiered with Colin Farrell as Italian-American author Arturo Bandini and Salma Hayek as waitress Camilla Lopez, a Mexican woman on the brink of American citizenship.
The setting is Depression-era Los Angeles, which is a pervasive "character" and central to the story's theme of alienation and struggle in a city of displaced yet hopeful people of disparate backgrounds and ethnicities.
Towne feels that Hayek is interested in playing both Latina and non-Latina roles now that she has done Frieda. And her presence, along with Farrell's increased star power, finally got the film made - "barely," Towne said. It was shot in South Africa on a low budget, and apparently money problems persisted. He said he was giving the "G-rated version" of the financial difficulties.
So, what about the movie itself? In conversations with several other reviewers here at the festival, I've discovered a consensus of opinion. Reactions are decidedly mixed, that is, the film starts out with potential, but never realizes it. I would have to agree.
Undoubtedly, some viewers will compare this film to Chinatown because Towne is once again exploring the unique character of early Los Angeles. And from what I've heard, Ask the Dust will come up short by that estimation. Of course, some believe that Chinatown is one of the best films ever made, so that?s a tough act to follow.
I would disagree with the critic, however, who claims that one of the film's problems is that it descends from the intriguing possibilities of film noir into melodrama. Melodrama is not inherently bad or low-class filmmaking - deep assumptions about gender and genre underlie that arbitrary distinction. This film is a romance, and that in itself certainly should not mean automatic devaluation - though, for some critics, it does.
But what I think is being picked up on here is the film's promise of a more in-depth study of the complex connections of character, relationship, and setting - which does not materialize by the closing credits. For instance, the characters struggle with ethnic identity and prejudice, both their own and that of others. And these struggles are closely tied to assumptions about gender and about this specific time and place.
But the film only seems to scratch the surface and, indeed, when it comes to questions of gender, doesn't wander far from the beaten path. There are numerous and typical antagonisms that keep the characters from consummating their relationship for quite some time. The sex scene in Ask the Dust makes it clear that certain assumptions about men and women are being held in place.
Like so many sex scenes before it, we only see close-ups of the woman's face and none of the man's. She watches him remove his clothes but there is never a cut to him as he does this. Hey, there are plenty of women in the audience for a film like this. True, we did get to see both Hayek and Farrell romp nude in the nighttime surf and they are both nude in the sex scene. But still.
Finally, one last comment. The ending reminds me of the Code-enforced endings of the Hollywood studio era, when love affairs between people of different ethnic backgrounds were usually doomed. "Ask the Dust" evokes a bygone Hollywood in that sense, too - and unfortunately, that seems a bit disconcerting.
That being said, if you like romances, are a fan of Farrell or Hayek or Towne, films that explore early Los Angeles or the Depression era, or if you like a film that attempts the difficult task of making the writing experience cinematic, then you might like this film. Towne does attempt to address prejudice, but it feels like it could have gone so much further.
"Ask the Dust" is distributed by Paramount Classics and opens March 10, 2006 in theaters.