Review

  • Warning: Spoilers
    "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." - Ernest Hemingway

    1939. John Fante writes "Ask the Dust", the tale of a young man embarking on a literary career. Years later a young Robert Towne stumbles upon and voraciously devours Fante's novels, most of which attempt to paint a portrait of early 20th century Los Angeles. Decades pass. Towne embarks on his own literary career. He scores big with his screenplay for Roman Polanski's "Chinatown", a LA set noir influenced and flavoured by Fante. Towne and Fante personally meet in the 1970s. Fante dies in 1983. Two decades later Towne adapts "Ask the Dust" for the screen.

    Those looking for a faithful adaptation of Fante's novel will be disappointed. Towne has been sculpted "Ask the Dusk" into a deliberate, five-way romance: a distillation of Towne's long-time love for Fante, Towne's adoration of noir (and its assorted signs, trinkets and decor), Towne and Fante's love for early Los Angeles (its history, its characters, locales and heartbeat), Towne's idealisation of the Romantic image of the struggling artist, and the in-film love affair between an artist (played by Colin Farrell) and a Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek).

    The film can't touch Nicholas Ray's "In A Lonely Place", but to those attuned to Towne's very specific yearnings it's a very good film. Towne's no visualist, but he's a good enough writer to capture the essence of a noirish LA, with its flapping curtains, decrepit apartments, barflies, lonely hearts, drunks, scroungers, con-men, palm trees and sun-baked pavements. It's a nostalgia rush, all of which is married to an idealised, heavily romanticised portrait of a struggling artist – super good looking of course – who spends his time bedding lush Mexican women (a bosomy Salma Hayek) or sitting valiantly at a typewriter, pounding prose on page while chiaroscuro lighting bathes his body.

    The most interesting thing about the film, though, is its narrative arc. Farrell, who plays our budding artist (a surrogate for both Towne and Fante), has a massive insecurity complex and hates himself because he's Italian. Of course many burgeoning artists develop their artistic talents as a means of assuaging personal issues (alienation, rootlessness, self esteem problems etc). Art them becomes a means of reconnection; the product of the outsider looking inwards. The marginality of the artist then often results in the artist developing, as a sort of self-defence mechanism, a sense of superiority or inflated ego ("I hate them for making me an outsider", "I want to be with them", "I am too good to be with them", "I'm a great artist", "superior", "going places", "don't need them", "so confused!" etc). As the artist must put him or herself far out on the line, and often stand alone, such an inflation – or an almost bipolar flip-flop from feelings of unworthiness to massive self-exaltation – then becomes all that keeps her or him persevering.

    Now the Farrell character, because he is supremely self-loathing, begins to lash out at anyone and anything that reminds him of his own lowliness. One of his targets is Salma Hayek's character (too beautiful for such a role), a poor Mexican waitress. She reminds him of that which he wishes to escape. By the film's end, however, Farrell drops his hate, his aloofness, and begins to identify with others, empathise and speak up for them. Being a writer then becomes not a mark of status, but a duty. This tension itself increasingly obsessed Fante, his books ostensibly revolving around arrogant characters seeking independence, fame and success, while actually serving as a vehicle to introduce readers to a city, its inhabitants and their plights. In the film, Farrell's re-connection with the marginalised - the very subjects of his future art - is symbolised as a series of romantic or sexual encounters with physically deformed women and society's dregs. The film is not about "immigration", "racism" and "poverty", as some claim, but something more generalised: artists or spectators forging empathic connections with their objects. As empathy by definition cannot function without imagination, you might say empathy is itself a kind of art. This is why it is important that Towne prolong the sex scene between Farrell and Hayek, and why it is important that it is at her most desirable moment that she cough and be sickly.

    Incidentally, evolutionary speaking, empathy or "sharing someone else's emotion" need not yield pro-social behaviour. If perceiving another person in a painful circumstance elicits personal, physical or emotional distress, then the observer may tend not to attend fully to the other's experience and as a result seem to lack sympathetic behaviours. As empathic concern can lead to personal distress, such "commections" are also often blocked out. This may explain why, statistically, excessively empathetic humans are less likely to be pro-social and perhaps why artists prefer to disconnect and engage with the world safely by proxy.

    8/10 – Interesting, but somewhat poorly directed and should have been better written. Will appeal only to noir-heads, artists and romantics. Seek out Fante's much copied novel. Worth one viewing.