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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Saturday, 11 March 2006
LA Revisited: Back to the Obscure Thirties
Topic: Local Issues

LA Revisited: Back to the Obscure Thirties

What this about? Nostalgia? For the middle of the Depression? For the middle of the Depression here in Los Angeles when the major studios were pumping out those white-telephone fantasies, the streets were filled with the homeless and hopeless, and the "Grapes of Wrath" dustbowl refugees were rolling in from Oklahoma only to find not much here? There's something in the air that fuels a return to those days?

The new film "Ask the Dust" opened in limited release March 10th (basics here) - Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, written and directed by Robert Towne. "An ambitious young man (Farrell), sick of his intolerant Colorado hometown, moves to Los Angeles to become a novelist. As his writing career takes off, he becomes obsessed with a Mexican barmaid (Hayek). It's based on a cult-classic book by noir great John Fante."

John Fante? Well, he was born in Colorado in 1909 and began writing out here in 1929 - a few decades of short stories, novels and screenplays. But he's not a household name.

On the other hand, Ask the Dust is his semi-autobiographical coming of age novel set here and does have a noir following. It was first published in 1939 and you might think of it as an anti-Gatsby, written while the man who wrote The Great Gatsby more than a decade earlier, with all its sad glitter, was drinking himself to death right here on Laurel Avenue, a few doors down the street, sickened of many things, including Hollywood. Ask the Dust is about the other side of this town - the grit.

Amazon is offering the June 1980 paperback edition (and offers a link to the front cover, the back cover, and an excerpt). And they quote from the preface by Charles Bukowski - "Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity ... that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me."

John Fante died in 1983. Bukowski loved the book. But who else was reading it?

Robert Towne was. As in this - "In the Robert Towne-directed adaptation of John Fante's Depression Era novel, Hayek will play the fiery Mexican beauty Camilla who hopes to rise above her station by marrying a wealthy American. That is complicated by meeting Arturo Bandini (Farrell), a first-generation Italian hoping to land a writing career and a blue-eyed blonde on his arm." (A trailer for the movie is here.) That link, at the Internet Movie Database leads to only one comment, which offers this - " Relying on the powerful performances of his cast, the film depends mostly on the background of Los Angeles as the magnificent city of dreams and ambition where lonely souls collide day after day."

Yeah, yeah. Everyone says that. "Crash" won best picture this year.

But what about the book? How did this one become a movie?

In this industry town, the Los Angeles Times explains, but the item was not in the entertainment or business pages. David L. Ulin, book editor of the Times covered it this week in the Friday book column.

See An L.A. Story, And Its Author's Too - John Fante's 1939 novel revealed a city in survival mode, a fertile setting for a writer of a similar mind. - Los Angeles Times - March 10, 2006

There he calls the book one of the "ur-texts of Los Angeles literature" - after almost seventy years still offering "a vivid portrait of the city's life." He says it's seminal, framing a new sensibility, "by turns cynical and innocent, full of rage and hope and desperation, much like Los Angeles."

Of course it was published in 1939, the same year as Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. It was a big year for cynicism.

Ulin quotes the opening line - "One night I was sitting on my bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed."

Yep, this is a Los Angeles "in which glam and glitter are not just distant but nonexistent, and it is enough merely to survive."

It now an old theme. And here the hero "falls in love with a Mexican waitress, whom he can't have and (perhaps) doesn't really want. He is casually brutal, to her and to others, and yet his redemption lies in his ability to recognize - if not mitigate - this propensity within himself."

He's conflicted - he sees the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as divine retribution for his sins -
There is, of course, something solipsistic about reading a natural disaster through a personal filter, as if the Earth itself were little more than a megaphone for God. Yet paradoxically, this becomes one of the novel's charms, the unrelenting way Fante reveals Bandini, and, by extension, himself.

Whatever else "Ask the Dust" is, it is a piece of autobiographical fiction, the author's life transformed into myth. It is acri de Coeur, an expression of self in the face of indifference, the indifference of the world. For all Bandini's crowing ("Here I am, folks. Take a look at a great writer! Notice my eyes, folks. The eyes of a great writer. Notice my jaw, folks. The jaw of a great writer. Look at those hands, folks. The hands that created 'The Little Dog Laughed' and 'The Long Lost Hills' "), he is adrift in the universe, just like everyone.

"It crept upon me," Fante writes, "the restlessness, the loneliness ... the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while; all of us, Bandini, and Hackmuth and Camilla and Vera, all of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it. We were going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die."

This is a universal moment in which the physical yields to the metaphysical and we stare down mortality as if it were the barrel of a gun.
My, it does sound like the flip side of Gatsby. But not on the north coast of Long Island with the mansions. And here we have a profoundly unsympathetic and self-absorbed hero, brutal and full of bluster. No Gatsby charm here. It's an LA thing.

Ulin doesn't think much of the film, as Fante, "is presenting us with a three-dimensional portrait, made all the more profound by his willingness to portray Bandini as unsympathetic and self-absorbed. Regrettably, it is precisely this quality that is missing from the film adaptation of the novel, in which writer-director Robert Towne backs away from Bandini's complex mix of arrogance and insecurity in favor of a lukewarm love story that sentimentalizes the character and his relationship with the waitress Camilla, one of the most scabrous affairs in literature."

Well, Hollywood is like that.

But what's with romanticizing the back end of town during the Great Depression? This film based on a minor novel was green-lighted by any number of marketing people, and funds were released for its production. These things cost real money. Someone decided people would pay to see a tale of someone self-absorbed and confused, with a pumped-up but shaky ego, trying to make sense of a world in economic ruin. And there's even a major earthquake. The marketing people must know something about the current zeitgeist. This is not a good sign.

Posted by Alan at 16:22 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006 16:31 PST home

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