In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | More on 1954 NYC Guidebook »

October 28, 2006

DVD Journal: "Ask the Dust"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Were you as fascinated as I was by the way Robert Towne's film "Ask the Dust" (based on the novel by John Fante) came and went without leaving a trace some months back? The Wife and I caught up with the DVD of the film over the weekend. We didn't love it, but it did get me thinking -- as, admittedly, I'll tend to do anyway -- about now and the 1970s.

A bit of filling-in-the-blanks for starters. First, the film's screenwriter / director, Robert Towne. From the the late '60s through the 1980s, Robert Towne was probably the most mysterious and legendary of all working American screenwriters. He had an uncredited hand in gestalt-shifting landmarks such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Godfather"; he was a famously shadowy script doctor; and he was the main or only writer behind "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," and (most famously) "Chinatown," a script still used as a model in many screenwriting classes.

Robert Towne

More than that, though, Towne became a kind of professor / philosopher of the movie business -- an articulate thinking man with access to filmdom's higher truths. Born in 1934, Towne grew up in San Pedro, a port near L.A. He became something new in American culture: not a real-writer wannabe who sold his soul to the movie business, but instead a brainy real writer whose main goal was to write movies.

The persona suited the times. In the 1960s and 1970s, art-mad people were taking movies seriously in ways few ever had before in this country. With his professorial, Euro-intellectual's beard and face, his intense-yet-confidential manner, his L.A. connections, his golden touch, and his access to fast-track types (and buddies) like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Robert Towne established a new archetype: the backstage-mover-and-shaker / serious-writer / moviemaker / L.A. guy.

He seemed an emblem of a new seriousness and depth -- a new adult-ness -- in movies, perhaps even in the culture more generally. How nice too that he moved well, spoke thoughtfully, and looked sexy. What he radiated was "Nobel winner who gets laid a lot," not "introvert-loser with an Underwood." A sexy thinker-creator! You had the feeling that if you could only spend a few minutes with Towne, you'd finally find out how the movies -- the myth and the reality, as well as the love and the money and the dreams ... -- really worked.

Then, as the '80s turned into the '90s, Towne began to stumble. He turned to directing and -- though I liked his first two movies, "Pesonal Best" and "Tequila Sunrise" -- they weren't exactly earth-shakers. And the films whose scripts he worked on seemed to get cheesier. He attached his fortunes to Tom Cruise. Fine, of course, but hardly the stuff of misty legend. And "Mission: Impossible"? "Days of Thunder"? Robert, please. Well, a man's gotta pay the bills somehow.

Still, his myth-sized reputation never crumbled; everyone seemed to find it convenient to maintain the "Robert Towne, intelligent insider" icon. But interest in him faded nevertheless. In the late '90s Towne made a biopic about the long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine; it went absolutely nowhere. Now he has made "Ask the Dust" -- his widely-publicized, long-pending dream project -- and it was as though the film fell down a well without making a sound.

On to "Ask the Dust" and John Fante ... Have you read any Fante? First published in 1939, Fante's "Ask the Dust" is an autobiographical, Depression-era novel about a sensitive young first-generation Italian-American from Colorado who comes to L.A. in order to turn himself into a serious fiction writer.

The book wasn't much noticed when it was first published, but it was rediscovered -- in large part thanks to Charles Bukowski and then Robert Towne -- in the 1970s. In his glory days, Towne often spoke to interviewers about the book -- how much he loved it, and how eager he was to make a film of it.

John Fante in 1939

Towne also befriended the prickly (as well as diabetic and blind) Fante, who enjoyed a last-minute burst of fame before dying in 1983. "Ask The Dust" was republished by John Martin's Black Sparrow Press; it became a cult hit. Fante even finished up some early work, and lived to see some of his other books brought back into print too.

Everyone was charmed. Some critics called "Ask the Dust" the Great L.A. Novel. As an iconic thing, "Ask the Dust" -- forgotten then rediscovered -- proved to be as hard for the press and the critics to resist as was the icon of Robert-Towne-the-Hollywood-intellectual.

So: Robert Towne ... Writing ... The 1930s and the 1970s ... The movies ... John Fante ... L.A. ... Myths ... Realities ... Etc., etc.

Short version: If you were tuned-into movies during the 1970s -- a period generally acknowledged as a great one in American movie history -- you vibrated when you heard the words "Robert Towne" or "John Fante" or "Ask the Dust."

It's of course a pity that Towne had to wait as long as he did to make his dream movie. But what a perfect time for it too. Is it just me or are we re-living the 1970s? Sexual experimentation ... Young filmmakers worshipping the films of that era ... Swirly fashions ... Young artists making first movies the way young writers used to write first novels ... The blogdom and YouTube media upheavals ... What drug is everyone on these days anyway? It sometimes feels as though we're once again hallucinating our way between the lava lamp and the disco ball.

Anyway, on hearing that "Ask the Dust" was finally on its way, I found myself hoping that Towne had somehow figured out how to knit together the novel's gotta-create-myself Depression setting, the rampaging moviemaking era that he'd lived through himself, and the nutty, explosive, yet semi-nostalgic present moment.

No such luck, darn it. Lord knows that Towne and his team put a lot of old-style Hollywood love and craft into their film. Wondrously designed by Dennis Gassner and splendiferously photographed by Caleb ("The Black Stallion," "The Right Stuff') Deschanel, "Ask the Dust" demonstrates that scads of visual life can wind up onscreen even when a film doesn't have a huge budget.

As far as I was concerned, the movie's biggest achievement was in its depiction of 1930s L.A. Which makes sense: Towne had always said that what he loved best about the novel was that it was the only book he'd ever read that showed L.A. as he'd known it as a child -- as a sleepy, overgrown small town. This isn't the usual movie version of L.A. It's neither L.A. the smoggy, sprawling metropolis nor L.A. the sinister/garish noir nightmare. It's more hick and more lovable -- a place where it's always spring, where the oceanfront is never mobbed, where the air smells of citrus, and where the desert begins right where the street ends. (South Africa stands in for L.A., and does so very convincingly.)

"Why aren't you writing, my darling?"

The film's other main success is in the character of the Mexican-waitress love interest, played by Salma Hayek. I thought the character came to wonderful life, and that Hayek was amazingly good: bold yet touchy, exuberant yet more insecure than you might guess, powerful yet tender ... Hayek flashes passion, then shifts to receptive softness, then goes a bit crazy, then collapses crushed ... It's a many-sided, fully-embodied performance, something I'd have thought was outside Hayek's range -- done with sensitivity and charm, and entirely free of vanity and grandstanding.

The film's weaknesses, though, leave the film feeling stiff and staid, as well as remarkably un-resonant. Because it doesn't seem to connect to anything, I spent the film over-aware of how wonderful the period fedoras and the period streetcars were.

The goofs are mainly matters of miscasting and writing. Colin Farrell plays the John Fante role, and it took me ages -- ages! -- to understand that his character is meant to be a wet-behind-the-ears naif. (And I'm someone who knows the novel.) Farrell works with commitment and he had my sympathy. It's always tough to portray a writer on screen, after all. What're ya gonna do, type and drink and smoke?

His American accent is convincing, and he does a good job of carrying himself like someone from the Depression. But he's still Colin Farrell. And, as young as he is, Colin Farrell has the air of a man who knows his way around adult pleasures better than you and I ever will. He looks foxy and depraved, like he's already spent decades carousing, slurping Guinness, and enjoying the attentions of doting lassies. And we're supposed to take this guy as shy / bold and fumbling?

As for the screenwriting ... Well, here's the problem Towne faced: The novel simply doesn't have much of a story. Not that much happens: The reader of "Ask the Dust" is carried along by John Fante's ebullient, lyrical narrative voice. What to do about this lack of action when turning the novel into a movie?

What Towne came up with is nothing if not intelligent, but it struck me as a miscalculation anyway. In a nutshell: He amplifies and embroiders the fact that the Farrell and Hayek characters are of Latin descent. They're outgoing and they're dark-complected; they wear their emotions on their sleeves. As soon as they see each other, they spark off. They may be strangers but they know each other all too well. And they instantly start quarreling, flirting, and spatting. All the loud, aggressive / wounded carrying-on had me mystifed at first, to be honest. Where'd it come from?

Towne puts their tangled love story at the center of the picture, and then makes their experiences as dark-complected recent-arrivals the crux of the film. What we learn is that they carry on as they do because blonde U.S. natives are mean to them. The Truth that the film works towards is that America is/was racist -- and that, because America is/was racist, our two main characters are having tragic self-esteem issues.

We move from exuberance to desolation, in other words. Granted that it's an arc. But for all Towne's efforts, it still isn't much of a story. And the main problem with the movie from a crass but important point of view is that it plays like a depressive hardboiled noir that someone forgot to put a murder mystery at the center of.

Can I can be forgiven a small digression? Another problem Towne's strategy created may be personal to me. I found it an unappealing arc. For one thing, I find the racism and self-esteem themes a bore. They've been done, and re-done, and re-re-done. Surprise me instead.

Also: Lordy, as a white hetero American male, I'm prepared to take the blame for many things. But I refuse to take the blame for the way some people of Latin descent talk loud, wave their arms around, and torment each other. I have friends of Italian descent, and some of them carry on exactly like the characters in "Ask the Dust." Everything in life is an excuse for intrigue, back-stabbing, conspiratorial whispers, defiant mouthing-off, and death scenes. (Incidentally, I find a lot of this very entertaining.) The guy who lives next door to The Wife and me is of Italian descent. He bellows at his mischievous dachsunds, then woos them, then goes berserk, then charms them back ... He and his dogs have a relationship that's as agonized (and ear-splitting) as anything out of "The Sopranos." Him I'm not entertained by. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman friend who recently left her Italian-American husband told me that she did so because her hubby, although often charming, was always angry, he yelled too much, and he was secretive and jealous.

Years ago I spent a few weeks in Italy, and, you know, it's the damnedest thing: Many Italians -- on their own turf, entirely free from the oppression of northern Euros -- carry on in extravagant ways.

Forgive the generalization, but a lot of Latins live out the hot-blooded, touchy-macho, let-me-sing-an-aria, fiery thang. They just do, and they do it unprovoked. I don't know how to explain it. But I also don't know what The Wife's blonde hair or my blue eyes have to do with it either. (BTW, I've also known Italians and Italian-Americans from whom I've learned a lot about class, dignity, reserve, and warmth.)

The movie's remoteness did prompt me to pick up the Fante novel again. I was curious to see after all these years if it really was what Towne and Bukowski (and the hip press of the 1970s) had cracked it up to be. I'd never been able to jump on board the bandwagon myself. Not fully, anyway. When I read "Ask the Dust" at the height of its fame, I enjoyed it but wasn't bowled over by it. I remember thinking, "This is the novel that's being touted as the great L.A. novel?" In fact, I liked Fante's collection of short stories "The Wine of Youth" (original title: "Dago Red") a lot better than I did "Ask the Dust."

Flipping through "Ask the Dust" over the last few days, I don't think I was in fact missing anything. I think I was right the first time around. "Ask the Dust" strikes me as an enjoyable but very minor novel. It also strikes me as one that requires that you be in the mood for a lot of immigrant-autobiographical horn-tooting. And even then ... Well, maybe I should withhold judgment. Still, does Fante even do his chosen soulful-song-of-myself thang all that well?

Here's a typical paragraph from "Ask the Dust":

The good days, the fat days, page upon page of manuscript; prosperous days, something to say, the story of Vera Rivken, and the pages mounted and I was happy. Fabulous days, the rent paid, still fifty dollars in my wallet, nothing to do all day and night but write and think of writing: ah, such sweet days, to see it grow, to worry for it, myself, my book, my words, maybe important, maybe timeless, but mine neverhteless, the indomitable Arturo Bandini, already deep into his first novel.

How do you react to this passage? It seems to me charming, and certainly far better than anything I could come up with along those lines. But it also strikes me as corny and lame. I dunno: Maybe I'm being excessively harsh.

As for the film: Playing Monday-morning-quarterback, I suspect that Towne's biggest mistake was in trying to make a classic-style movie full of consciously worked-out narrative parallels, symmetries, and metaphors. I don't think the book gave him the meat he needed for the kind of dish he was determined to serve.

Maybe he'd have had better luck taking a different tack entirely -- trying to put the film across as a downbeat, nostalgic-loser-America mood piece, something romantically drunk on its defeatism, something bleary and hyper-visual, something along the lines of "Leaving Las Vegas." (Whee, I can do run-on sentences too.) As a director, Towne in fact can call on a lot of sensuality, and he has a talent for glamor, as well an old-world sophistication about sex and a hard-bitten cynicism about the ways people use each other. I'd have been happier seeing more of that onscreen, and less focus on the finally not-very-enthralling action.

Towne and Caleb Deschanel do a commentary track on the DVD that I found uninspired if sporadically interesting.

Robert Towne talks to the LA Times. Other Towne and "Ask the Dust" resources are here and here. Salma Hayek talks here and here.

Looking at the Fante novel, though, reminded me once again how much I loved handling the Black Sparrow edition of the book that I own. That gorgeous jacket ... That funky but luxurious paper ... The typefaces that have such a lot of understated personality ... Honestly, I enjoyed the book as object far more than I did the book as writing. Here are a few scans and closeups of the book's cover.

Avant-garde yet craft-like ... Evocative both of reading and of L.A. ... Intellectual yet sensual ... Visual yet "written," somehow ... In any case, an object that you can handle over and over again with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. (You have to imagine very fibrous paper -- artist paper with real body, but un-precious.) In my mind, it blends together Bloombury and the Beats.

The book's gifted and poetic designer was Barbara Martin, the wife of Black Sparrow's great publisher John Martin. Nearly all the books the Martins published from 1966 to 2002 deserved Oscars for look-and-feel. (I used to let myself dream about writing a book and seeing it published by the Martins.) Though a tiny outfit, Black Sparrow was influential as the publisher of such literary outsiders as Fante, Bukoswki, Spicer, Bowles, Broughton, Creely, Wakoski, and others. I wish more contemporary book designers were exploring and extending Barbara Martin's style.

You can read about Black Sparrow here. Black Sparrow is now an imprint of David R. Godine. You can enjoy many of Barbara Martin's book designs by clicking on the authors' names here. Meet John Martin here. I wrote about some recent upscale book jacket designs here.

The '70s, eh? Still with us in so many ways, yet unquestionably gone for good.

I gave a heterodox account of the 1970s here, and marveled at the extremes of '70s feminism here and here. Learn more about John Fante at Wikipedia.



posted by Michael at October 28, 2006


'Ask the Dust' was a favourite book of mine, but I was still in my teens then. Fante had a cult following in the Netherlands as well, for awhile. There's still a literary magazine here called 'Bunker Hill', after Fante's book.

Yet, I've never reread him, even though the real reading always is in the rereading for me. Bought all of his books when the internet became a bookstore that delivered at home, and just stored them in a bookcase. Under F.

I wasn't his fault, but I've outgrown the need to read books about aspiring or struggling writers. And there's also something about the self-righteousness of certain male authors that makes them rather boring.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 28, 2006 3:36 PM

Good to see you back; I started to miss the rational, technical, argument-backed Michael. (it's the engineer in me, no doubt).

To the topic that irritates you.
I, of course, haven't seen the movie and haven't read the book, can't say if you're correct in your take of the film idea. As in "racism in America is the reason the main characters luck self-esteem".

You will no doubt find me irritating, too - but the thought itself, taken out of lefty agenda, has some merit. I base it purely on spotty personal observations, but I do know a few examples of American attitude and assumptions towards immigrants that made day-to-day existence of said immigrants hard and their sense of self-worth diminished greatly. And I would not blame Latin origins of the newcomers.

During the "entrance" interview in American Embassy in Moscow the State Dept clerk who conducted it, said something I found hard to believe. "If anti-semitism here is the main reason you want to move to America, let me warn you you're coming to the wrong place - many people in US hate Jews. I didn't believe him - but he was right.
My hair is chestnut (sorta) and my eyes - grey, I have no Latin blood, but I too "wear my emotions on my sleeve", in the manner that irritates you. I cry when I'm hurt. "Resolve", in my mind, is not highest on the list of most admirable human qualities. Sincerety and directness are higher. Of course, it's better not being yelled at on the street, but knowing it's not happening because people control their outward appearance and not out of genuine friendliness doesn't ease the "self-esteem" issue.
Selectiveness in American irritability with over-expressive strangers also doesn't help.
A typical scene: a subway ride in the filled train. Few black teenagers of impressive dimensions, conversing agitatively on the decibel level of downing airplane, take over extra seat by puting their feet on it. Nobody around moves a lash. But if a passenger with an accent attempts to take that seat for himself and raises his voice, half of the car will cast outraged glances on him, not the loud teenagers.

Have you ever thought how you look in the eyes of the Latin-temperamented compatriots? Have you asked the Italian ex-husband of your friend what he thinks of her?
Attempts to understand "the other" have to go both ways, you know.

Posted by: Tat on October 28, 2006 3:56 PM

What a wonderfully absorbing set of issues! I love this essay.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 28, 2006 4:08 PM

I was bowled over by "Chinatown" when I first saw it decades ago, but was less impressed upon viewing it again in 2004. My theory is that what was so amazing about it to me when it came out was that it showed how beautiful LA was in the 1930s before smog.

The good news in LA is that most of the smog is gone these days.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 28, 2006 4:42 PM

Ijsbrand -- That's interesting to hear, your experiences with the novel. Makes a lot of sense. The novel's a bit ... juvenile or something, a bit "Catcher in the Rye" for adults. And that "gotta be a writer" theme doesn't enthrall these days the way it once did. I probably would have done better not to look at it again!

Tat -- Apologies: I should have made it clearer that a) I often like extraverted people, and b) the experiences of immigrants are often very interesting to me. Not remotely irritated by any of that. Irritated only by the way the movie leans on the "blonde reserved people are treating us badly" thing as its plot-motor. Aside from the squabbling and the dreaming, the two main characters take almost no actions of their own, and it's hard as a viewer to imagine that that's because of their surroundings. Blonde people aren't to blame. The movie's writers are.

Mary -- What a couple of eras, eh?

Steve -- I like "Chinatown," though it seemed a little portentous even at the time to me. I wonder how I'd react if I watched it now. Some of it was filmed in Santa Barbara, wasn't it? Am I remembering right? No smog up there! How'd you react to the film "Ask the Dust"? Did I miss your review?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 28, 2006 4:45 PM

Towne was quite right about how incredibly biased America was toward Italians back then. Look how nobody ever cheered for Joe Dimaggio and he had to marry a really ugly girl.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 28, 2006 6:13 PM

I had a double identity in the Seventies: animal control officer in the daytimes trying to get a handle on the underside of Portland, OR. (Bet you didn't know it HAD an underside, eh?) They called it Little Beirut for the amount of shooting in the night. Patty Hearst was somewhere in town but no one knew where -- some thought with Black Panthers -- others figured that big tall red-headed basketball player, Whatsisname. Drugs were new, still idealistic. People lived on the street with pride.

At night I was the theatre critic for "The Scribe." Dressed a little strangely, looked for the brilliant and eccentric, went dubious places because that's where the plays were, wrote about dirty stuff in very elevated language. Wondered just where the part was about getting rich and famous.

On Sundays I went to church. Didn't wear a hat except on Easter.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 28, 2006 6:43 PM

That post was Michael Blowhard at his best, better than which it does not get. Pauline Kael is glowing from the great beyond.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 29, 2006 1:52 AM

Don't ya just hate it when a guy like Towne not only is successful but also has that romantic Hemingwayesque look about him? :^(

Has anyone here seen Factotum? I mention it because Matt Dillon plays the writer Bukowski in it, and plays him, as a writer, convincingly IMO. And, of course, Bukowski was a big Fante fan, as is mentioned in the post.

Posted by: ricpic on October 29, 2006 9:45 AM

Tat - Concerning your comment about the passenger with an accent getting dirty looks from the other passengers when she dares to suggest that our black brethren take their feet off the seat so that she can sit down: the reason she's getting dirty looks is not because of her accent; it's that the other passengers are scared sh*tless of our black brethren and are redirecting their fear/anger onto her.

Anti-semitism, American variety, is benign, quite benign, relative to its Arab or Slavic strains. It exists, and it's getting worse, the Jews being the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, as the world crisis deepens. But for most Americans, anti-semitism is more of the "I find them distasteful" variety than the Arab "kill the Jews" variety.

Posted by: ricpic on October 29, 2006 10:31 AM

I've never read the novel, but that extract you gave lost me exactly at the "ah" in its second sentence. Cut it at the semicolon and I'm fine, but the rest of it sinks into overripe mush. 1939 was a bit early for a writer to be ruined by reading too much Faulkner - maybe he was ruined by Thomas Wolfe, or John dos Passos?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 29, 2006 4:54 PM

Rick, in that particular case it was a guy (Polish, judging by his accent) - but similar scenes are played every day, that's why I said it's typical.

I'll not dispute what you said about American anti-semitism.

Posted by: Tat on October 29, 2006 7:21 PM

D'you know, I haven't been able to sell back *any* of my Black Sparrow Press books because they are such pretty objects. It was a revelation to me when I finally read Bukowski's City Lights edition books (Tales of Ordinary Madness, something else). B/c really, fully 75% of the pleasure of Buk was those beautiful books with their fine paper, clean type and starkly beautiful covers.


Posted by: communicatrix on October 30, 2006 12:44 PM

Very interesting review. And you didn't even mention what the Rotten Tomatoes rating of the film was...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 31, 2006 10:31 AM

Terrific essay. Really enjoyed it. Are you going to take on "A Fan's Notes" next?

Posted by: jult52 on October 31, 2006 2:15 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?