Monday, April 6, 2009

Here On Spec

I’ve written about ISHTAR before, but nothing says that I can’t do it again if it feels like the right time. Because ISHTAR is always there, a reminder of days long past as well as where I am in life right now. And over a year after it played at the New Beverly as part of an insanely long evening programmed by Edgar Wright that caused it to not to start until after 1 in the morning—I was long gone by then, having to get up early—it turned up again as part of a double bill playing with another maligned film, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. That one has its fans and I know where they’re coming from, but ISHTAR is the one I love. And the damn thing still hasn’t come out on DVD! It wasn’t a big crowd that turned out, but the laughs that came from those people were loud and strong. It was very clear that the audience who turned up to see ISHTAR, the story of songwriters Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and their adventures in the Middle East, was loving this film and laughing hysterically at all the right moments.

The standard line among the film’s fans—as far as I’m concerned, don’t listen to anyone who says that its reputation is deserved--is that it’s the first half hour of the film, the New York section, that is its true brilliance. I can’t disagree with that. What’s more surprising is that this stuff is actually packed into considerably less than that, with the two leads agreeing to leave New York by the twenty-minute mark. The legendary troubles the movie went through in post-production are most evident here, considering how fast things movie at this point, with very obviously a lot more to what we’re seeing than the movie gives us—Tess Harper as Beatty’s wife doesn’t get a single line of dialogue and Carol Kane as Hoffman’s girlfriend doesn’t get much more than that. Whether by accident or design, the editing pattern of this first twenty minutes feels the most like other Warren Beatty films and once we move to the Middle East things begin to proceed at a more normal pace of plotting.

There’s always a slight regret for me once we leave New York as I always wish that the whole film could be set there. That may have something to do with the rambling nature and a certain disorganization is apparent--maybe id somebody like Mike Nichols had directed he would have been able to bring more discipline and focus to the story. But considering how the plot of the main section once seemed almost too impenetrable, the through line of Rogers & Clarke becoming the two messengers of God by finding “the map that could cost us Ishtar and enflame the Middle East” has actually greatly improved as the years have gone on, with our awareness of that part of the world even greater, lending it a certain relevancy even now. The very nature of this screwy Hope-Crosby update, with Isabelle Adjani in the Dorothy Lamour role, set in a facsimile of the real world is consistently biting and clever, particularly the deadpan brilliance of Charles Grodin as CIA agent Jim Harrison. And it goes without saying that I love the work of the two leads here with Hoffman coming off as fearless, willing to do anything to let the world know how cool he thinks he is and Beatty projecting this sort of Zen calm throughout, aware of how little impact he has on his surroundings. The pleasures of ISHTAR are, for me, continuous, from the gobs of quotable dialogue—it’s more of a nit-picky nature than laugh out loud that you either relate to or you don’t. I can’t explain to you why “I was wondering who lived here. You ever wonder that about old houses? Who lives in them?” is so funny to me and I think that even if I explained the context it still wouldn’t work. The songs heard throughout by the great Paul Williams are blisteringly funny and several days later I still can’t wipe “Dangerous Business” from my head, not that I want to—after seeing it so many times, I even get a small bit of pleasure from hearing how composer Dave Grusin’s score incorporates it into the melody during the market chase. Best of all, what makes the film most endearing is that moving scene out on the ledge when Lyle and Chuck pour their hearts out to each other, each man without anything left to lose but willing to admit that they won’t settle for less than that nothing. It’s something that I wrote about several years ago and I couldn’t help but be thrilled to see the amazing Kim Morgan focus on that moment as well in her recent Warren Beatty tribute. These guys are unrepentant losers all the way and it was practically criminal to make a movie featuring heroes like that back in the 80s. Looking back at it now, it seems almost heroic.

There was no separating the film from the stories about its production—much of that seems to originate from a legendary New York Magazine article that came out in March of 1987, several months before its release. The film died a quick death at the box office in 1987, almost beaten in its first week by the horror movie THE GATE of all things (I was the one who answered that trivia question at the New Beverly—doesn’t everyone know that already?) That stuff doesn’t really matter to me now. At least, I don’t care enough to go into it. The determination of these guys, as stupid as they are, as untalented as they are, becomes more endearing to me over the years. So help me, it probably becomes more relatable as well. And seeing a 35mm print of it with that amazing Vittorio Storaro cinematography again after nearly 22 years brought me back to those days, making me remember the reasons why I responded to this odd, idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking. I saw it several times then and, I swear, I was tempted to go see it again the second night at the New Beverly. I went elsewhere, but it was honestly something I had to think about. I had wanted to post this on the second anniversary of Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur which was a few days ago—it seemed like the right movie to mark the occasion with--but things got in the way. Because it’s ISHTAR, which went though a few delays of its own, maybe it’s appropriate. But I decided to post it anyway, even if it was late, to freely state how much I love this movie despite what the world says. Those who also appreciate it, as Lyle Rogers would say, really know the lingo.

“That big, dumb, stupid-ass camel! He’d rather just sit there than move when you ask him! He’d rather get shot!”

“Actually, I kind of admire that.”

“Me too.”


Griff said...

Everything you say is essentially true, I think. I also wish the Manhattan set-up was deeper and more extensive -- not simply because it's the most pleasurable part of the movie, but because I believe that Lyle and Chuck's utter mania to write and perform their crazy songs probably needed to be more fully established early on.

People who love ISHTAR really get this; those who have no patience for the film apparently can't understand why these middle-aged, talentless songwriters are so absurdly persistent. I had no problem with this... but a lot of other people at the Ziegfeld when I saw it the weekend it opened certainly did.

Perhaps if Lyle and Chuck -- and their admittedly unique talent -- had been introduced and established a bit more pointedly and with a little more screen time (I don't have any ideas here, and I'm probably daft to second guess Elaine May), the audience might have been more readily let in on the joke.

A thought, anyway.

Unknown said...

Mr. Peel:

I dunno, if you've come across this, but FILM COMMENT's website has a fascinating conversation between Elaine May and Mike Nichols about ISHTAR. Check it out:

Another fantastic write-up about a much-maligned film. I never understood the awful reputation this film acquired when there's much worse crap out there. Oh well, no accounting for taste, eh?

Lisa said...

Someday I will dig up the review of "Ishtar" I wrote for the Daily Trojan and share it with you, Mr. Peel. It was quite positive.

Anonymous said...

I've only seen this once & on VHS at that, so, in a sense I've never really seen it. I saw it listed on the New Beverly calendar and didn't make a sincere effort to catch it (I'm not that big on "Joe vs. the Volcano".) Now, after reading your write up I wish I had made myself get out of the house to catch it.

- Bob

Mapeel said...

Mr. Peel, sending you thoughts of cotton candy, as the traditional second anniversary gift.

I have never seen Ishtar, so I have something to look forward to. I remember people comparing it to the Hope/Crosby Road pictures, very unfavorably. But Hoffman and Beatty win my heart simply because they wanted to do a Road picture.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I know what you're saying--and I wish that I had also seen it opening weekend at the Ziegfeld--but I don't have any ideas here as well. It's pretty obvious that there's more to the Manhattan section than what we see--I can remember seeing a trailer long before the release that I can't find online which included the two leads singing a mangled version of "American Pie". I'd love to see that footage again. I guess if the one-line summary of the film is "two bad songwriters go to the middle east" then they wanted to get them to the middle east sooner rather than later. People either get the film or they don't--I'd desperately love to see more of that footage to see if fleshing that section out would have helped but I'm not sure if it would have helped more people to accept the concept. There might be an answer to all this and maybe Elaine May has come up with it by now but I guess we'll never know what that is. But thanks for the thoughtful comment, it's gotten me to think about this some more.

J.D. --

Thanks very much for that, there's some amazing stuff there. Glad you liked the piece but I'm always thrilled to hear that this film has another fan!


I look forward to reading that, I'd really love to see it.


Sorry you didn't make it out there, I hope you get to see it one of these days and I'm glad I got you to want to see it. Thanks very much.

Mrs. Peel--

Thank you so much for that, it means a great deal. I hope you see the movie one of these days, I think you may actually respond to it. Sorry I won't be there to see your response to it, but if you do check it out I'd love to know what you think. All my best to you.