Ask Towne: What Went Wrong?

Seedy, sepia-tone losers struggling to survive in a Depression-era Hollywood of foggy alleys, rumpled bed linens, rat-infested palm trees, Jean Harlow cars and saloons with noxious sunshine bleeding through dirty Venetian blinds like Edward Hopper paintings: The images alone in Caleb Deschanel’s muted cinematography should make Ask the Dust something special in the junkyard of movies that have opened in the early months of 2006. Written and directed by the estimable Robert Towne, and elegantly peppered with a strong cast that includes Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Eileen Atkins, Donald Sutherland, Idina Menzel and Justin Kirk, the film brims over with promise.

So what happened? Despite fine performances and occasional moments of fascinating visual beauty, Ask the Dust is long, lazy, plotless, formless, overwrought, hysterical, unconvincing and very, very boring.

I guess I expect too much from the man who won an Oscar for writing Chinatown, overlooking the fact that he also wrote two Mission Impossibles that were as incomprehensible as they were lousy. I expect nothing from the Paula Wagner–Tom Cruise team—or anyone, for that matter, responsible for such pretentious bilge as Vanilla Sky. But joining forces on a long-term dream of Mr. Towne’s that he’s been trying to make for 30 years should really add up to more than this hollow disappointment.

Obsessed with John Fante’s unfilmable cult novel, Mr. Towne’s adaptation recreates with affection and a keen eye for detail a story about fringe loonies in the immoral, no-hope Hollywood of 1933 with a plot no bigger than a ginger snap. A miscast Colin Farrell sheds his Irish accent and his clothes, finally delivering that nude scene scissored from A Home at the End of the World, as a tortured Italian writer named Arturo Bandini who lives in a dingy flophouse in downtown L.A. with a window offering a panoramic view of the city (though the movie was filmed in South Africa!). The prejudiced, pinch-faced landlady (the great Eileen Atkins, wasted beyond forgiveness) doesn’t allow Jews or Mexicans on the premises. Bandini, who lives on oranges and cigarettes, with a picture of his idol H.L. Mencken staring from the wall above his Smith Corona, is flat broke and so down on his luck that when he spends his last nickel on a cup of coffee, the cream is sour.

Lacking inspiration, he epitomizes the blocked writer searching for material, failing to realize that it’s all around him in the wounded and desperate souls he meets: the drunk down the hall (Donald Sutherland), the bartender with tuberculosis who wants to write westerns (Justin Kirk), the once-respectable woman covered with burns who works as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in Long Beach (Idina Menzel).

Instead, he is drawn to a Mexican waitress in the bar down the street named Camilla (Salma Hayek), who teases, insults and tries to seduce him, even though he rejects her in scene after scene, including a nude moonlight swim in the ocean. For inexplicable reasons that soon grow annoying and eventually decimate the viewer’s patience, Bandini can’t make love to a woman unless she’s terminally ill, disfigured or crazy. After the woman covered with scars finally beds him, she’s killed in a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Long Beach, driving him deeper into his repressed shell of sexual fear, paranoia and repression.

By the time the Mexican waitress teaches him the meaning of passion and he gets around to thinking about marriage, she comes down with a big, noisy case of some mysterious Greta Garbo coughing disease. But at least he finishes his novel and walks away looking as dazzling as the Great Gatsby. What starts out with the cruel, mesmerizing Depression ambience of The Day of the Locust and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? winds up on a flat note, in the yellowed archives of columns by sob sister Louella O. Parsons.

Doggedly dedicated to getting the look and feel of the period right, Mr. Towne stretches a transparently thin plot to excessive length, emphasizing images with no sense of context and including everything but old Oxydol boxes: voiceover narration by the writer, opening credits stamped on the turning pages of his finished novel, an amusement park in a quake replete with a wooden roller coaster reduced to Tinkertoys. The film is deliciously retro, but so giddy with alliteration and souped-up dialogue (“When I called you a spick, it was not my heart that spoke, but the quivering of an old wound”) that it seems stoned on opium smoke. Ask the Dust never comes down to earth with any realism.

Playing sensitive, shy, arrogant, clean-shaven, decadent, naïve and impotent—all at the same time—is more than Colin Farrell can accomplish with any degree of conviction. He’s a far cry from what you might call a movie hero, even a marginal one. His emotional sexual paralysis makes him a bit of a pain in the ass. Sexy, salty and sensual, Salma Hayek is more emotionally direct, so she has no trouble stealing the movie. Both stars are pretty to look at, camera-ready and photographed like icons, but as characters who take two hours to bond, they are so vexing that the audience never really establishes a rapport with them as anything other than eight-by-10 glossies. The movie is so cynical it fails to sustain emotional impact.

I admire Robert Towne’s ambition and determination to bring to the screen a project he considers worthy and high-minded, regardless of the obstacles of box-office risks. Compared to most of the hacks who call themselves directors today, he is an accomplished visionary—but even as he recreates some of his same visions from Chinatown, his narrative technique for Ask the Dust is gimmicky, obvious, uncommercial and a real ordeal.

Remember Me?

Unknown White Male is a harrowing documentary that is every big-city cave dweller’s nightmare. Sometime during the summer of 2003, a young man named Doug Bruce boarded the New York subway system and disappeared. In what is technically called a “fugue state,” he woke up in Coney Island at 7 a.m. with amnesia—dazed, confused and near-catatonic, wearing flip-flops, shorts and a backpack containing keys, painkillers, a map of New York and the phone number of someone who didn’t know who he was when he called. The police were summoned and an ambulance took him to the blood-stained emergency room of a Coney Island hospital. The nurses wrote “unknown white male” on his chart. Test results showed no drugs, alcohol, traumas, brain tumors or neurological damage.

With no clinical evidence, he was transferred to the psychiatric ward. In the terrifying hours that followed, Doug Bruce ceased to exist. He’s been trying to put 35 lost years of his life back together ever since. This movie tells what happened and shows how an “unknown white male” survives in a city that cares more about pigeons than people.

A person in a “fugue state” can function for days or even weeks without knowing where they are, where they’ve just been or what they’ve just seen. (Same thing happens to me every time I leave a Lars von Trier movie.) Of course, there’s no footage of any of this retrograde action. It’s all related through Doug Bruce’s foggy narrative and the camera of his director friend, Rupert Murray—lots of shots of clocks, nurses in uniforms, hospital corridors. But the woman who answered her phone and didn’t know him put in a call to her daughter, who phoned the hospital, recognized the voice, identified Doug as a former stockbroker turned photographer and rescued him.

From here, the work began, like rehab for an amputee learning how to walk again. Doug had to start over, find out how much money he had in his bank account, familiarize himself with an apartment he didn’t recognize, adjust to old friends and lovers he no longer knew. Endocrinologists, neurologists and psychiatrists all have different opinions, and no two amnesia victims are the same, so despite the talking heads dispensing clinical information, you don’t go away from Unknown White Male understanding amnesia. You do see Doug re-meeting his family, absorbing their impressions, revisiting a storeroom in Paris where he boxed some of his memorabilia, tasting food, walking in the ocean like a toddler at the beach for the first time, learning to live again. The best thing about his ordeal is the way it renewed his interest in life, allowing him to experience originality through fresh eyes, without clichés: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fireworks, snow, the taste of strawberries.

The film investigates who Doug Bruce was, is and will be. Numerous friends who have now become strangers try in vain to reconstruct his past and analyze their new relationships with him, but their home movies seem vague and inconsequential. Dislocated from the sum total of his life, you have to ask: Is he a new person now, or is he the same person altered by circumstances? Frankly, I personally think it would be a blast to reboot, like a computer, and start all over. But in Unknown White Male, nothing definitive ever really emerges. It’s a sad story without emotional impact, a fascinating subject treated in a mundane manner. In a sense, Doug Bruce is still an unknown white male. The impression is that the mystery of what happened to him is more interesting than the man it happened to.

Limited Range

Samantha Sidley, 20, is the winner of the Algonquin’s first annual Young Artist Competition. The prize: a two-week engagement at the Oak Room. Cute as a button and half the size, she’s a song stylist worth watching. Appearing with her through March 11 are three of her fellow students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston: Yoko Komori, a delicate Japanese pianist wearing one of Julie Wilson’s gardenias in her hair; Blake Marquez, a lanky collegiate-looking bass player; and Aaron Weinstein, a kid who looks 14 years old, writes arrangements and plays a violin so small you’d have to call it a fiddle.

Exploring a variety of moods and tempos, Ms. Sidley bends notes and breaks down the lyric lines on “Georgia on My Mind” like a seasoned jazz pro and fearlessly tackles numbers made famous by everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Patsy Cline. Playing to a tough crowd of New York critics, maybe it was an understandable case of nerves, but she wasn’t in total control of Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me,” and she swallowed a few too many notes in keys that were pitched too low for her range. She doesn’t have a big instrument, which is refreshing in today’s rodeo of screamers. But with a fragile voice, you need to work even harder on articulation. She has the ideas, taste and musical savvy to bring it off, and time is definitely on her side. She calls this gig “All My Tomorrows,” based on an evergreen by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen that used to be a staple of the late, great Sylvia Syms. Her weaknesses are obvious, but her tomorrows seem as bright as her debut outing. This is a girl who is going places.

Ask Towne: What Went Wrong?