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Just Ask The Dust

Existentialism goes to the movies. Nick DiChario finds that the novel fills spaces the film doesn’t even have.

As a literature and philosophy student, over the past several years I have developed an interest in novels that explore some of the deeper philosophical questions facing human beings. In particular, I’ve found stories that delve into existentialism oddly appealing. Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky are two of the most popular classic examples. I studied these and other stories as part of a Literature and Existentialism class I took with Dr Tim Madigan, a US editor of Philosophy Now.

Nestled in among such classics is a little known gem of a novel by John Fante called Ask the Dust. Originally published in 1939, Ask the Dust has developed a bit of a cult following in existential circles. It’s the story of Arturo Bandini (played by Colin Farrell in the film), a young Italian-American novelist trying to make it big, and a beautiful Mexican girl named Camilla Lopez (brought to the screen by Salma Hayek) who hopes to marry a wealthy American. The novel was one step shy of extinction before Charles Bukowski helped revive it. Bukowski was a huge Fante fan. In Bukowski’s novel Women (1978), his protagonist cites Fante as his favorite author, and Bukowski would later write the introduction to Ask the Dust when the novel was finally reprinted.

Arturo Bandini is perhaps the premier existential figure of twentieth century American literature. All you have to do is read a few pages into what he’s thinking and feeling and, most importantly, the way he observes the world, to see the taproots of existentialism:

So you walk along Bunker Hill, and you shake your fist at the sky, and I know what you’re thinking, Bandini. The thoughts of your father before you, lash across your back, hot fire in your skull, that poor son of miseried peasants, driven because you were poor, fled from your Colorado town because you were poor, rambling the gutters of Los Angeles because you are poor, hoping to write a book to get rich, because those who hated you back there in Colorado will not hate you if you write a book. You are a coward, Bandini, a traitor to your soul, a feeble liar before your weeping Christ. This is why you write, this is why it would be better if you died.

The tortured Bandini is always searching for authenticity, truth, self-awareness, as any worthy existentialist must do. Although Bandini won’t exactly put you in mind of Camus’ Monsieur Meursault, a character devoid of human emotion, or Dostoyevsky’s long-suffering government laborer – perhaps a bit too self-pitying – our tormented Bandini might be a fairly legitimate cross between the two. Don’t mistake him for the voice of his generation, or a cultural metaphor, or a beleaguered Christ figure. Bandini is simply Bandini, constantly aware of his failures, weaknesses, strengths, and desires.

I was excited when I heard that film-maker Robert Towne (Chinatown) wanted to make a movie of it. Towne fell in love with the book as many of us have, and hoped to bring its broken, vulnerable characters to life along with the 1930s Los Angeles milieu in which the story takes place. I knew it would not be an easy task turning this exquisitely realistic and painful novel into a film. Existentialism, let’s face it, does not exactly lend itself to the entertainment industry, and it has very little to do with the sort of make-believe beauty that tends to hit the big screen.

There’s no denying the beauty in Towne’s film. Farrell and Hayek are among the most attractive actors working in the movies today, and the location shots are amazing, richly transporting us into Depression-era LA. All of this is great for Hollywood; but it does little for existentialists, who are far more interested in truth than beauty. Existentialist movie-goers want to see deep, inner conflict, and a little internal and external ugliness along the way won’t scare us. In fact, we prefer the realism of it.

“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,” Sartre said, “That is the first principle of existentialism.” In Fante’s novel Arturo Bandini seems to understand this first tenet intuitively. As much as he despises his situation as a poor peasant, a struggling writer, a sinner, he knows he is not a victim. He knows that it’s entirely up to him to change his life, to succeed, to prove the world wrong and become the great novelist he imagines himself to be. In this way his anguish is real not self-pitying, and he accepts it.

This doesn’t come across very well in the film. It’s not easy translating internal monologue into Hollywood box office bucks, where visualization and action are paramount. But it’s Bandini’s stream-of-consciousness that breathes life into Fante’s novel. Without it, we would not understand why Bandini treats Camilla so badly and yet pursues her relentlessly. Who is this Arturo Bandini who recklessly both loathes and loves Camilla Lopez? Why does he want to save her – this Mexican girl, this ‘hophead’ who loves someone else? Who is this Arturo Bandini who displays such awkward and astounding sensitivity toward the physically-deformed Vera Rivken? In the book, we slowly begin to see who he is, to know and understand him as his thoughts unravel. Maybe we like what we see, maybe we don’t: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we see the truth, as raw and ugly and exquisite as it is.

No such luck in the film, however. Here Bandini and the other characters come across as absentmindedly cruel. They all seem so angry, swatting randomly at people as if those who wander into their lives are little more than annoying insects. And there seems almost none of Fante’s humor in the film. It’s a mistake to think that existentialism is all about despair, suffering, and pessimism: Fante succeeds in finding the humor in his protagonist’s struggle too. Witness this conversation between Bandini and Mrs Hargraves the owner of his apartment building, when they first meet and he wants to rent a room:

“Mr. Bandini,” she said, looking at me coldly, “Boulder is not in Colorado.”

“It is too!” I said. “I just came from there. It was there two days ago.”

She was firm, determined. “Boulder is in Nebraska. My husband and I went through Boulder, Nebraska, thirty years ago, on our way out here. You will kindly change that, if you please.”

“But it is in Colorado! My mother lives there, my father. I went to school there!”

She reached under the desk and drew out the magazine. She handed it to me. “This hotel is no place for you, young man. We have fine people here, honest people.”

I didn’t accept the magazine. I was so tired, hammered to bits by the long bus ride. “All right,” I said. “It’s in Nebraska.” And I wrote it down, scratched out the Colorado and wrote Nebraska over it. She was satisfied, very pleased with me, smiled and examined the magazine. “So you’re an author!” she said. “How nice!”

Stepping into Fante’s novel is like entering a bombed-out church. It’s a wreck in there, shattered stained-glass windows, broken statuary, smoke, rubble and dust everywhere – but the reader gets a sense of a deeper solemnity: that whatever lies beneath the wreckage of people’s lives once meant something, and might mean something again. To treat the story as Towne did, as yet another stock Hollywood tragedy between two beautiful lovers who can’t overcome their tortured personalities long enough to get it together, is okay for what it is. But it is not existentialism. For existentialism you’ll have to read the book.

© Nick DiChario 2007

Nick DiChario’s fiction has been published in many magazines and anthologies, and he has been nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. His first novel A Small and Remarkable Life (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006) has an existential main character.

THE NOVEL: ISBN: 0060822554, Paperback, 192pp, Reprinted February 2006, HarperCollins Publishers

THE FILM: Written and directed by Robert Towne, Released 2006 by Paramount Classics, 117 minutes, Rated R

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