Telling The Truth Can Be Dangerous Business (some thoughts on Ishtar)

What do you know about Ishtar?

Hmmm?

Nothing? Something?

If you know anything at all about it, it’s probably that it sucks. Beyond sucks, actually. It’s godawful, it’s terrible, it’s a pox on the face of cinema. It’s one of the worst films ever made, a disasterpiece of unparalleled proportions. That’s probably what you know. And if you haven’t seen the film (which is likely; it’s not available on DVD – DVD!! – in North America, and VHS copies are rare), then that’s the state of mind you’re likely to keep.

I can’t blame you. I harbored that same mentality for years. You want to know what my first experience with Ishtar was? This:

Hell's Video Store

Hell’s Video Store

That’s a panel from Gary Larson’s The Far Side. I remember reading that in a Far Side anthology when I was six or seven and being vexed. Since being vexed at The Far Side when you’re six or seven is common, I did what I normally did when this kind of thing happened: I asked my father (whose book it was that I was reading) to explain it to me. I can’t remember what he said, but whatever it was, I “got” the joke, and boom. I now despised Ishtar, a film I had never seen. Despised, not disliked. Because the joke isn’t that it’s simply a bad movie. Bad movies are a dime a dozen. The joke is that movie is *so* bad that it’s the only thing available to rent in Hell’s Video Store. Even at six, I got that. It’s unambiguous.

But!

Did you know that Larson wrote that strip without having seen Ishtar? It’s true. He was just jumping on the Hate Wagon. In The Complete Far Side (released in 2003), Larson wrote the following:

“When I drew [the cartoon], I had not actually seen Ishtar. …Years later, I saw it on an airplane, and was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it’s not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so.”

Yikes. Well, credit where credit is due, he did apologize – but it’s telling that he admitted that it’s not only *not* a bad movie, but that he actually found it entertaining. The most negative thing he says is that “it’s not the greatest movie ever made.” Which, if you’re keeping score at home, is a phrase that applies to most movies. So yeah. Not that damning.

I saw Ishtar last Thursday on the big screen, at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, IL. The theater gave the film a small one-week run; the version I saw was a new Director’s Cut. I have no idea how new said cut is, or how much it varies from the theatrical version that so famously tanked (quality preconceptions aside, it’s pretty indisputable that Ishtar was a financial failure, grossing only $15 million against a budget of $55 million). But one thing’s for sure: I liked the movie. Quite a bit, actually. I laughed, and laughed frequently, something which I don’t typically do at most modern comedies nowadays.

And speaking of: Ishtar, in 2013, feels very modern. “Coenesque” wasn’t in the lexicon in 1987, but that’s what the middle portion of the movie is. And you can feel the resonance of the film’s first half-hour in the stuff that Adam McKay and Jody Hill are doing now, but without all the needless cruelty and viciousness. Kenny Powers is aggresively delusional. Rogers and Clarke are sweetly so. When Clarke says at the beginning of the film that one of duo’s songs is every bit as good as a Simon & Garfunkel song, he earnestly believes it. He’s not being hyperbolic or ironic about it. It’s just the truth as he sees it. That sort of directness and sincerity is absent in Hollywood now. It’s refreshing to see.

I don’t want to sort through Ishtar’s negative press, or parse out all the “he said, she said” infighting that happened during (and after) its production. I don’t want to break down the film’s humor, or talk about its political implications. That’d be counter-productive. I just want to focus on a quote that Dustin Hoffman gave about the film in 2009 (Hoffman played Chuck Clarke, one half of the film’s wannabe songwriting duo; Lyle Rogers, his partner, was played by Warren Beatty):

“The thing I love about [Ishtar] – and I love it with all of its flaws – is that it has a statement to make. And that is: It is far, far better to spend a life being second rate in something that you’re passionate about, then to spend a life being first-rate at that which you are not passionate about. I thought that was worth making a movie about.” (emphasis Hoffman’s)

Bingo.

The last shot of the film has Rogers & Clarke’s album for sale in the record store window, mirroring a shot from the film’s opening. They’ve made it. True, their album is discounted (presumably it’s not selling well), and yes, a good amount of luck and blackmail was involved to get it there at all, but for now, they’ve won. It’s a victory of inches. And sometimes, those victories are the best.

See Ishtar if you can. It never got a fair shake, and that’s a shame. It deserves at least that. All films do.

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5 thoughts on “Telling The Truth Can Be Dangerous Business (some thoughts on Ishtar)

  1. Thank you for pointing out something I have known for many years. I’ve loved Ishtar (and sing the songs regularly ) since I had seen it as a pre-teen (geez like 25 years ago- i feel old now). This movie has always been in my top 3 and still cracks me up to this day! I find jokes that I’ve missed over the years or rekindle those I’ve forgotten. Maybe most people still won’t give it a chance, but I belong to a long-standing small but proud society that loves Ishtar— where the cool peeps hang.

  2. I saw this in the theatre when it came out and both my girlfriend and I were in tears with laughter. I could never understand why it was so thoroughly trashed other than I think a lot of critics wanted it to fail given its budget and pre-release hype. Too bad. I’d be interested in seeing it again to see how well it holds up.

  3. I’ve always enjoyed the film as well—a friend showed it to me on VHS in the late 80’s or so, and I thought it was hilarious. A few years later, my dad was flipping channels and stopped on the movie because of the big-name actors, and we were all laughing quite a bit. I mentioned that I knew what movie it was, but I refused to tell them for about 20 minutes because I didn’t want them to give up on it. They were stunned when I told them, and we watched through to the end. I felt like I had achieved a minor victory.

  4. I think one of the big reasons why the film invokes such a persistent negative reaction was due to all of the crazy production/post-production drama. I didn’t really touch on that on the post, but it is pretty well documented that film was being built up as a flop as its budget ballooned and it fell behind schedule. Who knows, maybe in another 20 years, we’ll look at Gigli differently. Stranger things have happened!

  5. I had this cartoon on my fridge for most of my childhood because my dad was in the movie and we thought it was hilarious. I didn’t realize that Gary Larson hadn’t even seen it. I’m sure he will appreciate knowing that.

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