A welcome return of the film maker who truly understands L.A.
Is Robert Towne L.A.'s Woody Allen? His portraits of the city are indelible, and one of the chief pleasures of Ask the Dust is the way in which the depression-era City of Angels becomes a character in the film. Ask the Dust is haunted by the notion that L.A. is the place where people come to slowly die in the sunshine and is fascinating as a piece of "sunny" film noir. It also explores themes of racism, prejudice and self-esteem and how they manifest themselves in personal relationships. There's a daring ugliness to the romance that makes the first third of the film especially compelling. The scene where Arturo Bandini and Camilla Lopez first meet is pure cinema and one of the more remarkable bits of mainstream film making I've seen in some time. In its way, it is as sublime as Brassai's photos of café-society Paris. In the work print I viewed, Ask the Dust wasn't able to sustain this opening intensity, but it managed to stay compelling nevertheless. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Ask the Dust is that it reminded me why Chinatown is such a great film (and the comparisons will be inevitable); while I don't think Ask the Dust is in the same league, it does herald the welcome return of Robert Towne as an artist who understands L.A. by instinct, knows how to tap into Hollywood's rich history, and can deliver a human-scale film with the power to reward and possibly even change its audience.
I kept waiting for this to turn into an all-out howler like "Showgirls," and while it veered very close at times, it never quite got there. You'll have to decide for yourself whether that's a good thing or not. It tanks as a morality tale because there's not a likeable character anywhere in sight and it works way too hard to make enticing the lifestyle it condemns.