Reader poll write-up, spring 2018: Ask the Dust

As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll, this week I am analyzing the 2006 film Ask the Dust this week. I had never seen the film before.

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

What’s it all about?

The 2006 film stars Salma Hayek, who plays Mexican immigrant Camilla, and Colin Farrell, who plays Arturo Bandini, the son of two Italian immigrants. Here’s the film description from Amazon Prime:

“Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), a young would-be writer who comes to Depression-era Los Angeles to make a name for himself. While there, he meets beautiful barmaid Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant who hopes for a better life by marrying a wealthy American. Both are trying to escape the stigma of their ethnicity in blue-blood California. The passion that arises between them is palpable.”

Bandini Quartet cover

“John Fante, Ask the dust” by giuliaduepuntozero is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0

The film is based on the book by Italian-American author John Fante and was first published in 1939 — but the book, and its author, fell into obscurity in subsequent decades. However, Robert Towne rediscovered and used the book as inspiration for the Depression-era (and Oscar-winning) dialogue he wrote for the 1974 classic Chinatown, and writer Charles Bukowski helped the book get republished and wrote a foreword for the 1980 reprint edition by Black Sparrow Press. The book is part of the “Bandini Quartet,” four novels about central character Arturo Bandini.

I had admittedly never heard of the book or the author before, but by all accounts, it’s an underrated gem of a novel — and both its style and subject matter have been extremely influential in the last few decades. For that reason alone, I’m glad I watched this film!

On paper, the film has a lot going for it:  it’s based on a groundbreaking novel; stars two talented and award-winning actors; was written and directed by Robert Towne (the same one who rediscovered Fante’s work in the 1970s!); and was produced by Tom Cruise.

The final result, however, is frustratingly disappointing, all the more so considering the talent involved. Hayek and Farrell display very little chemistry onscreen — or rather, Hayek has sexual chemistry for days (and is the bright spot in this film), but Farrell cannot seem to, uh, rise to the occasion. Farrell has a natural Irish brogue, and acting with an American accent seems to have dampened his naturally charismatic personality. (Yes, an Irishman is playing an Italian-American immigrant.) There is also waaaaaaaay too much voice-over narration, an expository trick that falls as flat as Farrell’s American accent.

Reel librarian fake-out

Within the first few seconds of the title cards, Eileen Atkins’s name came on screen against a backdrop of an open book, a fountain pen, and glasses on a chain. I immediately perked up at these often librarian-adjacent props and thought, “Oh! Perhaps Eileen Atkins is also playing a librarian!”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Credit card for Eileen Atkins in ‘Ask the Dust’ (2006)

Alas, no. Fake-out! The first few minutes of the film reveal that Eileen Atkins plays Arturo’s no-nonsense landlady, not a librarian. She does wear glasses on a chain, but the open book in the credits turns out to be the guest registration book.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Eileen Atkins as the landlady, not the librarian

The real reel librarian

Nine minutes into the scene, Arturo recalls a memory from when he lived in Colorado. (I didn’t get at first that this was a flashback scene, but then I recalled the librarian role was listed in the credits as “Denver librarian.”) He is in a public library, and he sets down a book on the front counter to check it out.

The librarian at the counter, played by Natasha Staples, is young, blonde, and attractive. She is also fashionably dressed in modern, stylish clothes (for the 1930s time period), and it’s obvious that she has made a considerable effort with her makeup and curled hairdo. She and her red lipstick definitely stand out amidst all the hazy earth tones of the rest of the library setting.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Public library scene and background

Here’s how their “meet cute” moment plays out, as Arturo sets down the book on the counter:

LibrarianYou have nice hands.

ArturoI do?

LibrarianVery.

There is definite flirty eye contact happening between the two.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Arturo and the librarian “meet cute”

Then the librarian looks down as she stamps his card, her eyes registering his name. She looks up at Arturo.

LibrarianBandini? You’re Italian. 

Her face subtly hardens, and her voice flattens out.

LibrarianThat’ll be two cents every day it’s overdue.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Reel librarian discrimination and dismissal

This is the librarian’s last line, and it is a clear dismissal. Arturo’s face falls as he realizes that the librarian is no longer interested in him, due to his name and Italian roots.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Meet disappointment

This library scene lasts only 30 seconds and includes the bare minimum of sets and props, including stacks of books and a stamper.

The reel librarian’s role

What is the reel librarian’s role in this short scene? Although the reel librarian is onscreen for only a few seconds, she stands out enough to merit a Class III category, in which librarian(s) plays a secondary role, ranging from a supporting character to a minor character with perhaps only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.

Primarily, this reel librarian serves as an Information Provider character type. In addition to helping set the library scene, her role reflects the discrimination toward Italian immigrants at that time. This scene provides necessary backstory for Arturo’s personal frustration and experiences suffering unfair treatment and discriminatory behavior due to his name, ethnicity, and background. The plot is then set for Arturo to meet Camilla, a Mexican immigrant who has also suffered discrimination to her name, ethnicity, and background.

It’s also interesting to note that this reel librarian partially fulfills the Naughty Librarian character type. It’s clear that she’s willing to be naughty… if the man has the right name, of course.

Sources used

Ask the Dust. Dir. Robert Towne. Perf. Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Idina Menzel, Eileen Atkins. Paramount, 2006.

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License.

Woodard, Rob. “How Ask the Dust nearly missed greatness.The Guardian, 14 Jan. 2009.

Past reader poll winners

Interested in past reader poll analyses? Check out them out below:

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Reader poll winner, spring 2018

The votes for the most recent reader poll are in… and the surprise winner is Ask the Dust! The 2006 film starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell had a come-from-behind victory today, during the last day that the poll was open, and the other two films, Autumn in New York and A Bird of the Air were tied only yesterday. Very dramatic finish!

Screenshot of reader poll spring 2018

Ask the Dust? Ask me next week!

So I will be watching and analyzing Ask the Dust this week via our Amazon Prime subscription, and next week I will be back with a film analysis post — stay tuned!

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

Past reader poll winners

In the meantime, if you’d like to peruse previous reader poll winners, check out them out below:

Reader poll, spring 2018: Choose your next reel librarian (romantic) adventure

I have opened up a reader poll at least twice a year since Spring 2014, when I ask readers to vote for the next film for me to analyze. You can see past reader polls here.

I usually pull together five film titles, but this time, I am only doing three titles, all available streaming from Amazon Prime. (Can you tell I am making the most of our membership?! This post is not sponsored, I promise. 😉 ) And all three titles are romances.

Therefore, now is the time to choose your next reel librarian romantic adventure! The reader poll will stay open through next Tuesday, May 15th, by 10 p.m. PST.


Ask the Dust (2006)


Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), a young would-be writer who comes to Depression-era Los Angeles to make a name for himself. While there, he meets beautiful barmaid Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant who hopes for a better life by marrying a wealthy American. Both are trying to escape the stigma of their ethnicity in blue-blood California. The passion that arises between them is palpable.”

Where a librarian fits in:

I have never seen this film, but the credits list the role of a “Denver librarian” played by Natasha Staples. I have to assume it is a minor role in this historical romance. But Colin Farrell is playing a writer, so perhaps there’s a research angle involved in helping him write a book?


Autumn in New York (2000)


Autumn In New York Trailer.mov,” uploaded by SarahG, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Richard Gere, Winona Ryder

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Autumn in New York follows the sexual exploits of Will Keane (Richard Gere) – New York restaurateur, infamous verging-on-50 playboy, master of the no-commitment seduction – until he runs into an unexpected dead end when he meets Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder). Charlotte is half Will’s age and twice his match, a 21 year-old free spirit yearning to get out and taste the excitement of adult life.”

Where a librarian fits in:

I saw this film years ago, but I honestly don’t remember much of it except that it was very dramatic and an over-the-top, tearjerker romantic. I do remember a librarian who works at a museum, and Delores Mitchell is listed in the credits as playing the role of “Librarian.” I also have in my film notes that Lisa Tyler (played by Vera Farmiga) is a researcher.


A Bird of the Air (2011)


A Bird of the Air – Movie Trailer (2011) HD,” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Rachel Nichols, Jackson Hurst, Linda Emond

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Rachel Nichols and Jackson Hurst star in an adaptation of the romantic novel The Loop. When a talking bird bursts into his Lyman’s life, Fiona helps unravel the past and opens up his heart.”

Where a librarian fits in:

The main character Fiona is a librarian! The film’s plot summary in IMDb.com states “A sassy parrot and a free-spirited librarian upend the well-ordered life of a solitary man.” There is another librarian character listed in the credits, with Carrie Fleming playing a “Reference Librarian.” This sounds like a quirky romance with a starring role for a reel librarian.


Again, the reader poll will stay open through next Tuesday, May 15th, by 10 p.m. PST. Thanks in advance for helping choose which film I should analyze next!

I’ll be back next week on Wednesday, May 16th, with the winning film. And then I will publish my analysis post the following week, on May 23rd.

Reader poll winner write-up: Possession

Possession (2002) won the most recent reader poll, so let’s get to it!

The film is based on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, a “brainy romance” which contrasts modern and Victorian times and uses a flashback structure to move between a current investigation and a long-ago affair. Two literary scholars, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, an American playing British) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, an American playing a character who was British in the book but got turned into an American in the film) track down the heretofore unknown correspondence and relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Director Neil LaBute also helped adapt the screenplay.

How does the title come into play? As per the book’s Wikipedia entry:

The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artefacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.

Maud and Roland explore their own budding relationship as they research Ash and LaMotte’s relationship — but it’s really the latter that holds the viewer’s interest. The chemistry, such as it is, between Paltrow and Eckhart really cannot hold a candle to the scorching sparks between Ehle and Northam, as also evidenced in the film trailer below:

I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.

The reel librarian

How does the reel librarian fit into all this literary foreplay and mating rituals? I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if there is a librarian character in the source material. But in the movie adaptation, we actually get our first glance at the reel librarian less than 3 minutes (!) into the film, in a library scene critical to the entire plot.

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

Roland Michell is a research assistant and scholar of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, and he catches a London double-decker bus to the London Library to pick up a book for a professor. The reel librarian (played by Hugh Simon) plonks down an old book from Ash’s personal library.

(I love this screenshot of the old book, carefully tied with ribbon, juxtaposed next to a computer keyboard and mouse!)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The book that started it all

Although we first see the hands of the reel librarian before we see his face, the camera is not kind to the facial expressions of the reel librarian:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian at London Library

Let’s see how the researcher and the reel librarian “meet cute,” shall we? 😉

LibrarianBit of an old monster.

RolandYeah, but an important monster. It’s Randolph Ash’s.

LibrarianYes. Who are you with again?

RolandI’m Roland Michell.

LibrarianWho?

RolandProfessor Blackadder’s research assistant.

LibrarianIsn’t that Dr. Wolfe?

RolandWas. Fergus got the lectureship position at St. John’s… over me.

LibrarianOf course he did. Oh yes, Dr. Wolfe mentioned you. You’re that American who’s over here.

RolandWell, I’m sure there are others. I mean, after all, you are our favorite colony.

The librarian has no comeback for that. Score a point for the American! The librarian drops what he’s holding, sighs, then picks up a book to read it.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland and the librarian at London Library

We learn several things from this short, but contentious exchange, between Roland and the librarian, who is definitely serving as an Information Provider. We learn that the librarian is old-fashioned and conservative, dressed in his sweater vest, tie, and tweeds. The librarian also manages to be both oblivious AND nosy at the same time. The librarian’s nosiness is convenient for purposes of exposition, as we get to learn not only a brief backstory (and credentials) of Roland’s character, but we also learn about his rivalry with another researcher, Dr. Wolfe. Also, this “Britains vs. Americans” theme — unique to the film, as Roland’s character was British in the book — will come up again throughout the film. The librarian is also dismissive of Ash’s book, which helps provide plausibility to Roland’s impending discovery.

The London Library and the letter

This first scene in the library lasts less than a minute, but we return to the London Library a minute later, with this bird’s-eye view:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

London Library

We then zoom into Roland’s table, surrounded by books and index cards, as he starts going through Ash’s book, a setting nicely juxtaposed with a brief flashback of Ash inserting the letter into the book 150-odd years ago:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell finds the letter

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Randolph Henry Ash hides the letter

Roland immediately understands the significance of what he is reading. Randolph Henry Ash is known for his love poems, but here he is writing a letter to a woman, a poet, who is NOT HIS WIFE. Roland looks up and around, suddenly acutely aware of other researchers… and the reel librarian’s suspicious gaze.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell’s reaction to the letters

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian’s look

The music swells as we see Roland mentally wrestle with what to do. Should he put the letter back into the book and inform the London Library of his discovery? But based on what we’ve already heard — he’s gotten passed over for a position, he’s an American who isn’t respected over here in England, nobody attaches any importance to Ash’s old book — we anticipate what he’s about to do instead.

Yep, Roland Michell chooses to pilfer the letter. (That’s fancy talk for “stealing.”) And see how nonchalantly he pulls it off, in the following pair of screenshots.

Step 1: Move the letter over to his personal notebook, which is behind the column, out of sight from the librarian.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

Step 2:  Sliiiiiiiide over to the other seat behind the column and close the notebook. Done! Now you see him, now you don’t…

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

Selling the plot

This pivotal scene ends at 6 minutes and 50 seconds. The combined library scenes last a combined 3 minutes, setting up the premise for the rest of the film.

Roland takes the letter to his flat and reads it, and then visits his landlord, Euan, who also happens to be a lawyer (played by the always hilarious Tom Hollander). Roland buys “7 minutes of attorney-client privilege” to confess what he’s done, and therefore has the opportunity to really sell the plot to the viewer:

RolandThey’re practically love letters.

EuanRather racy, actually.

RolandYou see, Ash, supposedly, never even looked at another woman. I mean, not even glanced at one his entire marriage. Can you imagine what would happen if I could prove that Mr. Perfect Husband had this Shakespearean-type dark lady thing going on?

EuanYeah, but that would be extraordinary. It would be rewriting history, old chap.

PLOT. SET. MATCH. GO!

Research and the British Museum

I believe the library scenes, set in the London Library, were actually filmed on location, as evidenced by photos of the library seen on their website. However, the London Library is not included on the filming locations list on the IMDb.com page for Possession. The London Library is described as “one of the world’s largest independent lending libraries, and one of the UK’s leading literary institutions.” Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle helped initiate the founding of the London Library, formed in 1841, in reaction to the restrictive policies of the British Museum Library.

Knowing this rivalry between the London Library and the British Museum Library makes it even funnier when we realize that Roland works as a research assistant at the British Museum! We next see him entering the museum by the staff entrance, and then we are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at an office and private research library for Professor Blackadder:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland heads to his office at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Roland does attempt to tell Blackadder of his discovery, but Blackadder cuts him off with, “No need, the novice blunders on the discovery. The scholar investigates.”

As Blackadder rushes off, he instructs Roland to answer the “wretched requests” that came in from the public, including — and I am not kidding here — a question about how many jars of gooseberry jam Ash’s wife made in 1850.

Roland responds, “This is not a job for a grown-up!

But this job IS important, as Roland gets inspired for how to do more research for his own discovery in the midst of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries and personal correspondence. He begins getting clues (keywords!) from Ash’s letter and looking up his wife’s diaries to uncover the next step in the research trail.

Bonus:  The viewer gets treated to the old-school index files for this private research collection, as well as all the file boxes. Nothing looks computerized!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Teaming up

The research trail then leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey (Paltrow), who works at the University of Lincoln in Lincolnshire and is an expert scholar on Christabel LaMotte. We also find out that Maud is related to LaMotte. Maud is immediately dismissive of Roland’s theories (“It does seem rather pointless“) but humors him by allowing him to look over letters of LaMotte’s lover, Blanche Glover (played by Lena Headey), from that time period.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud and Roland walk through a library en route to Maud’s office

We also get to see Maud’s office, which is light and airy and filled with neatly stacked books and illustrations tacked up over the desk.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Dr. Maud Bailey’s office

Roland then stays overnight at Maud’s place, and at 21 minutes into the film, decides to take a chance at revealing his secret to Maud (to impress her?):

RolandMaud, can I show you something? [digs into his bag and hands her the letters]

MaudAre these…

RolandThose are the originals.

MaudHow did you get them?

RolandI took them.

MaudTook them?

RolandI sort of stole them.

MaudWhere from?

RolandThe London Library.

MaudHow could you do that?

RolandIt was on impulse.

Here is Maud’s priceless reaction to the letters — and to Roland’s cavalier attitude to stealing:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud’s reaction to the letters

This scene, which ends at 22 minutes, then completes the plot set-up, that Maud and Roland will team up to research the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, a journey that takes them several different places, including all over England and over to France.

Ethics? What ethics?!

Along the way, Roland’s unorthodox — er, unethical — practices totally corrupt Maud’s own standards as a scholar, all the way up to the end of the film. I won’t spoil all their adventures, but here’s just a smattering of quotes throughout the rest of the film that involve research, research methods, and increasingly deteriorating standards of professional behavior:

Maud, upon discovering a cache of letters between LaMotte and Ash:

Can we please do it properly. Let me run downstairs and get with some notecards and some pencils?

Maud’s reaction to the necessities of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries, an interesting way to rephrase that old saying, “The devil is in the details”:

God is in the boring housewife’s stuff. We should check it.

Maud’s reaction to Roland wanting to keep tracking down LaMotte and Ash’s movements, instead of going back to work at the British Museum:

I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your stolen letter. Now I feel exactly the same.

Roland’s reaction to having to go back to work, while Maud leaves to doublecheck her archives:

Good. I guess I’ll just… I don’t know… go look up shit on the microfiche.

Spoiler: He totally doesn’t. We see him hanging out amongst the bookshelves instead, while his co-worker pushes a cart down the aisle, working.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library stacks behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Totally corrupted by this point, Maud’s smiley reaction to Roland taking the fax a rival researcher sent:

You’re shameless.

Perhaps “shameless” would have been a better title for the film? 😉

Sources used:

London Library” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession. Dir. Neil LaBute. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle. Warner Bros., 2002.

Possession (2002).” IMDB.com.

Possession (2002 film)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession (2002) Possessão – Trailer” uploaded by dezeroadezfilmes, Sept. 4, 2009, Standard YouTube license.

Possession (Byatt novel)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Reader poll winner, fall 2017

The votes for the most recent reader poll are in… and the clear winner was Possession! Once again, y’all surprised me (for some reason, I was convinced either Gangster Story or Day of the Falcon would vie for the top spot).

Reel Librarians | Reader poll screenshot, fall 2017

So I will be (re)watching Possession, via the Hoopla streaming service available through my local public library. Next week I will be back with a film analysis post — stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’d like to peruse previous reader poll winners, check out them out below: