Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ask The Dust

Good morning, screenwriters! Let us bow our heads and pray to Mecca.

"Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."

The words belong to John Fante, a writer I'm finally getting around to reading after years and years. Bukowski called Fante his god. The man lived in poverty, riffing off how he spent his last nickel and the sandals on the feet of a beautiful Mexican woman and how he stole two quarts of buttermilk by accident. He's a racist S.O.B. He's an astonishing writer.

His work is original and honest and full of the beautiful moments that only come when you're writing for yourself. There's an ecstatic energy that reminds you of the Beats and jazz, even though Fante wrote Ask the Dust a decade before the Beat Generation and didn't seem to know much about jazz.

I couldn't put down Ask the Dust last night. I had to see what he'd do next. I know how hard it is to be the person with access to that kind of spontaneous structure in your prose. I used to live for that. As I get ready for another day of script consulting and post-production worries and, with luck, a couple hours of my own writing, I wonder if I'd be happier writing about my last nickel.

His life is a cautionary tale for a lot of writers. Fante, like most writers in L.A., flirted with screenplays. And like a lot of writers, it almost killed him. He wrote Walk on the Wild Side --- Jane Fonda's first credited screen appearance. But nobody really remembers him for that. As a screenwriter, he lived a fairly restless (but not terribly remarkable) middle class existence. As a prose writer, he sang like some kind of ecstatic shaman.

As we worry about audience expectation and working with three acts and character sympathy, and all that, it's important to remember that these things are not handed down to us from god. They are, at best, guidelines. At worst, they kill the very thing that makes writing special: that creative light that comes out of nowhere and throws the whole universe into a new balance.

I was fairly horrified to realize this morning that Ask the Dust had been made into a movie starring Colin Farrell, of all people. Fante may have had a certain allure in the right light, but I just can't picture him with pecs. It's sad to think that all Hollywood could do with this astounding book is a fairly drab little love story. Alas! Let's all try to push a little harder today.

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