Racial, sexual tensions flare in Towne's `Ask the Dust'

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In Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust, H.L. Mencken advises the hero, aspiring novelist Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), not to worry over "anxieties about your limited experience with life in general and women in particular. ... Either you're in front of the typewriter writing or you're out in the world having experiences. Therefore since you need to write and you need to have experiences to write about - you have to learn to do more with less. And doing more with less is, in a word, Mr. Bandini, what writing is all about."

Doing more with less is key to the intense aesthetic of Towne, who penned the original scripts for Chinatown and Shampoo as well as Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits, which he also directed. As the writer-director of Ask the Dust, he keeps the scale intimate and the tone personal and urgent as he trains a melancholy doter's eye on Depression-era Los Angeles, miraculously re-created in South African locations. Even Mencken remains a figure heard in letters (his wise words here are actually Towne's); the critic Richard Schickel delivers them with dry, gravelly eloquence.

Ask the Dust (Paramount Classics) Starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. Directed by Robert Towne. Rated R. Time 117 minutes.

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