Somehow I missed the classic LA-set Bukowski-inspiring novel Ask The Dust by John Fante - despite being a sometime-lover of the sun-soaked- "place where people go to die"-LA-deadbeat-and-eccentrics novel subgenre - N. West country, you could say, dropped in on the wings of Chandler's slumming angel.
I also missed the film version, until last night. It was written for the screen and directed by Robert Towne, whose Chinatown script best captures, on film, the same rough sun-blanched time. Towne is not known as a very good director, but he seems the ideal fit, here. Cast as the struggling, Mencken-mentored Italian writer, Arturo Bandini, is pretty boy Colin Farrell, and the mercurial edgy gorgeous Mexican waitress is played by Ms. Hayek. Both leads are pictorially perfect - Hayek literally embodying the key aspects required of her part - Mr. Farrell with his boyish black bangs and badly-shaved neck, and slowly-declining sartorial confidence, is at once a dreamer and a dreamboat.
I found the film beautiful, for the reasons that many viewers may consider it a wooden nickel thrust in the outstretched palm of an orphan: it is both "realistic" in evocation of time and place (the Cape Town location - how many "towns" can one film possess?) and yet, its mise-en-scene, and particularly, stagy, barroom and hotel room sequences, are "artificial".
It brings to mind, in this respect, the directorial work of another 70s master screenwriter, Paul Schrader, whose Mishima, for instance, or Light Sleeper, are great but flawed versions of their possible selves. The reason is the theme of identity vs. idealism. In this case, Bandini and his Mexican Beatrice both dream the big American one - and the happiness entailed is impossible, so long as they remain who they actually are (non-WASP). In order to render the element of immigrant desire, the element of fiction's yearning, to find a home in a world that is solidly based, Towne has allowed the movie to move, in dialectical fashion, between very complex realistic moments of disrupted character development, and achingly lovely film noir set-pieces. It has the poetry of O'Neill in it.
Those who crave scenes of writers smoking and typing out stories on Underwoods (and stealing milk - under milk wood?), shuffling along dusty, palm-tree lined streets, and young, doomed lovers trying to make something of themselves in a socio-politcally waste land (an arid land where one of the characters ends up buried) with small, confused acts of tenderness (for the night can be tender) and aggression, will find the story moving. It made me want to finish my novel, that's for damn sure.
As an aside, there's a fun cameo by Donald Sutherland, as a drunk who haunts the cheap hotel, his lungs gassed in the war; Sutherland played Homer Simpson in the film version of West's The Day of the Locust, the fullest treatment of similar themes of displacement and a quest for permanence, in the impermanent, empty world at the edge of the West Coast - and it's good to be reminded of that here.