Ask the Dust
Tempering the darkness with resignation.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"I am a lover of beasts and men."
So Colin Farrell's writer, Arturo Bandini, reveals his humanistic longings and along the way his inexperience with humans. His love is the Mexican beauty Camilla, played better than Katy Jurado ever could by Salma Hyeck, with whom he fights from the cute meeting to the very end. But it is a love nevertheless, with a strength often given only to those who fight passionately.
This is 1935 LA, land of love and art, with a whole bunch of racism thrown in between the abstractions. Arturo's being Italian throws a certain doubt on whether he could eventually marry this Mexican Camilla. Ask the Dust subtly explores a melting pot of racism, of course including the ever present persecution of the Jews. In fact, no one in the film has found a mate or a home yet anyway, so loneliness and disenfranchisement are always there.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's shots are each a marvel of painterly cinema, just the right brownish, noirish lighting and shadows to create a marginal world of dream and destitution where only love could create wealth. And what a love. These two leads are to the camera born, their dark good looks making them as much brother and sister as reluctant lovers. Farrell speaks almost as if he is narrating, which he does as well; his intonations are weighty in sotto voce, uncharacteristic of the more flamboyant characters he is used to playing. Hyeck has lusty dignity with a spicy stubbornness that makes you believe she is worthy of marrying this gringo and living happily ever after.
But that ending is the clich?d part of the story, as if all stories about writers must end with a tragedy. Towne, however, tempers the darkness with hope, an aspiration in abundant supply in lala land, but the compromised kind reminding us at the end of his towering Chinatown that it's out of our hands.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com